Immigration

Undeterred by Trump, foreign skilled workers seek visas

Congress approved an annual quota of 85,000 H-1B visas but the Justice Department warned employers not to discriminate against U.S. workers.

Despite signs that Trump would make drastic changes to the H-1B skilled worker visa program, requests have poured in after the government opened the annual visa application process for the 2018 fiscal year.

H-1B visas allow companies in the United States to temporarily employ foreign workers in occupations that require highly specialized skills, such as in science, engineering, journalism and technology.

United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) said last week that all requests "will be subject to the 65,000 quota allocated by Congress" for each fiscal year, as in past years. An additional 20,000 visas are assigned to professionals graduating from U.S. universities with a master's degree or higher.

On Monday truckloads of packages containing application forms began arriving at processing centers, according to The New York Times.

But the Justice Department did caution employers Monday not to discriminate against U.S. workers when seeking H-1B visas.

“U.S. workers should not be placed in a disfavored status, and the department is wholeheartedly committed to investigating and vigorously prosecuting these claims,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Civil Rights Division, in a statement.

And USCIS released a four-page memo over the weekend that appeared to suggest that entry-level computer programmers, at low pay grades, are no longer eligible for H-1B visas.

In early February, a White House proposal was leaked to the media that sought an investigation into whether visas such as the H-1B take work away from Americans. The document proposed that President Donald Trump revise the program.

Univision obtained a copy of the document, dated January 23, which was accompanied by a proposal for an executive order entitled “Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programs.”

During his campaign, Trump provided few clues about the changes he planned to make to the H-1B program--which would need to be backed by Congress. While the program is heralded by some as essential to ensure skilled American labor and innovation, it has come under criticism for taking jobs from Americans.

The leaked proposal called for the DHS secretary to "review all regulations authorizing foreigners to work in the United States" within 90 days, and to determine which immigration laws are against the national interest, so that they can be eliminated.

At the beginning of March, USCIS suspended the fast track for H-1B visas, due to what the government said was the high number of applications accumulated in recent years, in some cases resulting in delays exceeding 240 days.

The fast track request is form I-907, a request to USCIS for so-called “premium processing,” for an extra fee.

USCIS said that the temporary suspension of the priority processing program will help reduce the total processing time of H-1B requests, while at the same time allowing the agency to process pending requests.

Lawyers consulted by Univision predicted that the H-1B application window for 2018 would remain open for mere days due to the high demand. Normally the window lasts about a week.

Last year, the government received 236,000 applications in the first week before closing.

The filing fee for Form I-129 is $460, and USCIS is no longer giving petitioners 14 days to re-file a rejected payment.

“If any fee payments are not honored by the bank or financial institution, USCIS will reject the entire H-1B petition without the option for the petitioner to correct it,” USCIS said in a press release.

Last year, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) said that the H-1B visa program should not remain "limited" and asked Congress to adjust it to market demand taking into account business needs.

"When demand is greater than supply, all we are doing is creating obstacles to economic growth," AILA warned. It also called on Congress to reform the program "in a way that responds to the needs of U.S. companies, U.S. workers and our economy."