Trump orders Cabinet to review H1-B visa program

President Trump signs the “Buy American and Hire American” Executive Order (source: WhiteHouse.gov)

On April 18 President Trump signed the executive order “Buy American and Hire American,” which aims to restrict foreign companies from bidding on federal contracts, promote the use of American manufacturing products — namely, steel, iron, aluminum, and cement — in federal building projects, and discourage the hiring of foreign-born workers in the U.S. The order could have significant implications for the future of foreign-born scientists and engineers looking to live and work in the U.S.

In particular, the order directs several Cabinet members to review the H-1B visa program and suggest reforms, “to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.” The H-1B visa is a temporary, non-immigrant visa that employs highly-skilled workers in “specialty occupations” for up to six years in three year increments. H-1Bs are popular among American firms because the application processing time — several months for standard processing and several weeks for expedited processing — is much faster than green card applications, which can take over 5 years to process.

There are 85,000 H-1B visas made available each year: 65,000 are awarded through a lottery and 20,000 are reserved for foreign nationals with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. In any given year, that would allow for 510,000 total H-1Bs. However, institutions of higher education and related non-profits are exempt from these caps, making the total population of H-1Bs significantly higher. The U.S. has approved an average of 138,481 new H-1Bs each year since 2004 when the cap was extended by 20,000. In 2015, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received a record 350,000 petitions and approved roughly 275,000 of these applications including both initial and continuing employment.

President Trump’s order follows two regulatory changes made by USCIS in March. The first removes computer programmer from the list of “specialty occupations.” This change could alter the make-up of the H-1B pool — roughly two-thirds of all H-1Bs approved in 2015 went to “computer-related occupations.” The second change suspends “premium” (or expedited) processing for six months. In the short term, this may prevent current visa holders from traveling in the months it takes to process their renewal applications. In the long-term, the suspension could add to the long-standing backlog of visa applications as USCIS has struggled to keep up with the growing number filed each year.

It is clear H-1B policy needs to be updated to meet to the growing demand — in seven of the last ten years, the 85,000 person cap has been met in just five business days. The executive order strongly suggests an intent to reform the H-1B lottery, a change that is also supported in Congress. Several bills offering replacements to the lottery system have already been introduced in the the House and the Senate this session. The first grants favor to H-1B sponsoring companies that pay the highest salaries, and the latter prioritizes students with STEM degrees from U.S. institutions. A vote on comprehensive H-1B reform is expected after Trump’s review process is completed next fall.

The @stpolicy blog is a product of Baker Institute’s Science and Technology Policy Program — specifically Dr. Kenneth Evans and Dr. Kirstin Matthews. Find more research and publications at www.science.bakerinstitute.org.