The Trump administration on Tuesday announced new rules that will significantly raise wages for foreign workers on H-1B and narrow the eligibility criteria to qualify for these high-skilled visas. Both measures were aimed at preventing this programme from being used to displace Americans.
Indian professionals are the largest recipients of H-1B visas, accounting for more than 70% of the visas issued every year.
The White House said in a statement that President Donald Trump wanted to improve work visa programmes to “prioritise the highest-skilled workers and protect American jobs and wages” and intended H-1B visas to “be reserved for specialised talent that helps support a strong economy”.
The changes announced on Tuesday will be introduced as “interim final rules” and will go into effect separately, issued by separate federal agencies. The rule on higher wages, which goes into effect from Thursday, will be issued by the department of labour . It will be aimed at “strengthening wage protections, addressing abuses in these visa programmes, and ensuring American workers are not undercut by cheaper foreign labour”, said secretary of labour Eugene Scalia.
US employers hiring foreign workers on H-1B and other work visas will be required to pay foreign workers prevailing wages or the actual wage paid to other employees with similar experience and qualifications. The labour department will publish profession-specific prevailing wages based on surveys.
“The prevailing wage rates in these programmes thus play an integral role in protecting US workers from unfair competition posed by the entry of lower cost foreign labour into the US labour market,” said the department.
Critics of the H-1B programme have long argued it has been used to displace American workers by outsourcing their jobs to companies that use foreign workers, who are cheaper.
The department of homeland security’s interim final rule (IFR) changing the definition of “speciality occupation” is expected to become effective in 60 days. The department said the rule will narrow the definition of specialty occupation by “closing the over-broad definition that allowed companies to game the system”.
A basic college degree will not be sufficient any longer to quality for an H-B under the new rule. An applicant for a job in electrical engineering, for instance, will be required to have a degree in electrical engineering, not computers.
“We have entered an era in which economic security is an integral part of homeland security. Put simply, economic security is homeland security. In response, we must do everything we can within the bounds of the law to make sure the American worker is put first,” said DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf.
The new rule is expected to cut the number of H-1B petitions filed every year — around 200,000 — by a third, according to a senior DHS official.
The department will also closely monitor third-party employers who hire H-1B workers and contract them out to work for US companies. The White House called them “shadow” employers. Their employees will be granted reduced validity H-1B visa, possibly a year at a time. The normal term is three years, extendable by another three.
The DHS said it was skipping the usual notice-and-comment period as it rushes the rule to ensure that employing H-1B workers will not “worsen the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 and adversely affect wages and working conditions of similarly employed US workers.”
But the H-1B programme has been in the crosshairs of the Trump administration from 2017, when the president signed the Buy American, Hire American executive order intending to rid the programme of abuse and fraud.
“The pandemic has given this administration a pretext to enact all sorts of damaging and extreme immigration restrictions—against refugees, relatives of US citizens, and highly skilled immigrants as well,” said Doug Rand, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House and is now the co-founder of Boundless Immigration, a company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship.
President Trump has suspended all immigrant and non-immigrants visas — except for certain health professionals — to ensure Americans had the first shot at jobs becoming available in an economy crippled by Covid-19 and related lockdowns.