Melia Russell | June 5, 2019
According to new data released by the federal government on the state of the H-1B visa, commonly used for high-skilled workers in tech, there has been an abrupt drop in approvals for a work permit that once was granted routinely.
Fewer foreign nationals applied for new or renewed H-1B visas, whose recipients are picked out of a lottery, from October 2017 to September compared to the previous 12-month period, and far fewer were granted admission. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it approved 335,000 of the visas in fiscal year 2018, down 10% from approvals in 2017.
President Trump, who issued a “Buy American, Hire American” executive order in 2017, has said he wants higher skilled workers to come into the country, while also stemming the flow of migrants illegally crossing the southern border. This year, the administration tinkered with the H-1B lottery to give an edge to foreigners with advanced degrees from American colleges and universities.
The latest numbers show that even those workers with special knowledge and advanced degrees are facing challenges getting in, immigration lawyers say.
“It’s not really about the position, the company or the individual,” said Justin Parsons, an attorney at Erickson Immigration Group in Arlington, Va. He argues that immigration officers are “looking for reasons to deny the case.”
The approval rate tumbled to 85% from 93% in 2017, according to the agency’s yearly visa statistics report. Before then, the rate had been sliding from 96% in 2015, when Barack Obama was in office.
The crackdown on legal migrants has made it harder for Bay Area companies to meet “an immediate need for tech talent,” said Peter Leroe-Muñoz, who leads policy efforts on technology issues at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
“We recognize that there is a dearth of domestic workers who have the tech skills to fill all of the job openings within the innovation economy,” he said.
When he meets with executives from the group’s 330 member companies, Leroe-Muñoz said the ability to hire skilled foreigners is often their chief concern. They won’t say so publicly, he said, because “they don’t want to put a target on their back. The president sends out a tweet and suddenly your stock price drops.”
Critics of the H-1B visa program say the greater scrutiny is a positive step toward fixing the country’s broken immigration system.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has pushed for lower overall immigration levels, argues that the visa program has allowed employers to bypass American workers in favor of foreigners, who have less leverage over their wages and working conditions.
“They seem to be moving in the right direction,” Mehlman said. “They are not going to allow employers to simply fill out an application” and get their visas.
Immigration lawyers are challenging some of those denials through an appeals process, said Minette A. Kwok, an immigration attorney who represents tech startups as well as publicly-held firms at Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco.
She said “no occupation,” field of study, wage level or type of company “is safe.”