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US to suspend fast processing of H-1B visas for high-skilled workers

We’re still waiting for President Trump to weigh in definitively on the ongoing H-1B visa reform debate, but his administration just introduced a new change to the system that may be seen as hostile to the tech industry. In a press released posted this evening to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website, the Trump administration said it was instituting a temporary suspension of what is known as premium processing for H-1B visa petitions. The change is slated to take effect on April 3rd, 2017 for all H-1B petitions, and it may last up to six months.

For Silicon Valley companies, many of which employ large numbers of H-1B holders, this move could signal that waiting times for approval may get much longer. Under the current system, a company who is sponsoring a potential employee or current employee’s H-1B petition may fill out a form to expedite the processing of that petition. After paying an additional $1,225 fee for this service, USCIS responds typically in 15 calendar days, whereas standard H-1B petitions may take anywhere between three to six months to receive a judgement.

The press release states that USCIS wants to “reduce overall H-1B processing times.” By suspending premium processing, the department says it will be able to “process long-pending petitions, which we have currently been unable to process due to the high volume of incoming petitions and the significant surge in premium processing requests over the past few years.” It also says it will now “prioritize adjudication of H-1B extension of status cases that are nearing the 240 day mark.”

Yet while this is not a clear-cut ruling on the broader H-1B debate, the suspension of premium processing may exacerbate the already-deteriorating relationship between Silicon Valley and the Trump White House. Following Trump’s ill-fated and messily implemented immigration ban, nearly every big-name technology company joined together in criticizing the move and voicing support for the country’s pro-immigration heritage and its population of foreign-born workers.

The immigration ban, which barred citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the country, was less about protecting American workers and more about promoting Trump’s anti-immigrant ideology and keeping his controversial campaign promises. The H-1B debate is far more complex. The number of H-1B visas issued every year is capped at 85,000, but demand has far outstripped supply in recent years. Many Silicon Valley companies, with Facebook’s FWD.us lobbying group leading the pact, have called for an expansion of the H-1B program so tech companies can continue to hire high-skilled overseas labor.

But critics on both sides of the political aisle say the program is deeply flawed. Because the H-1B system operates as a lottery, prominent Indian IT corporations like Infosys and Tata Consulting flood the application pool with petitions and then bring scores of Indian workers to the US to work as contractors. Often this is done with no intention of helping those H-1B holders stay in the country long-term and in some cases or the purpose of replacing laid off American workers.

Currently two bills, one from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and one from Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., are competing for Congress’ approval. Regardless of which passes — and there are quite a few others proposals on the table as well — H-1Bs may very soon come with higher salary caps and more restrictions and stipulations designed to protect American workers. On top of longer waiting times for processing, Silicon Valley’s pro-immigration coalition is bound to continue seeing the Trump administration as the tech sector’s enemy.


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