US President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has been actively considering ways to revamp a temporary visa programme used to bring foreign workers to the United States to fill high-skilled jobs, according to sources familiar with the discussions.
Possibilities for reforming the distribution of H1B visas, used largely by the information technology (IT) sector, were discussed at a meeting last month with chief executives of these companies at Trump Tower, said two sources, who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to talk about the closed-door talks.
Trump senior policy advisor Stephen Miller proposed scrapping the existing lottery system used to award the visas. A possible replacement system would favour visa petitions for jobs that pay the highest salaries, according to the sources.
Earlier, Senator Jefferson Sessions, Trump’s nominee for the post of attorney general, had assured legislators on Thursday about taking steps to push measures to curb misuse of H1B visas.
These are intended for foreign nationals in “specialty” occupations that generally require higher education, which according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services
(USCIS) includes, but is not limited to, scientists, engineers or computer programmers. The US government awards 65,000 every year.
Companies say they use these to recruit top talent. But, a majority of the visas are awarded to outsourcing firms, sparking criticism by sceptics that say those firms use the visas to fill lower-level IT jobs.
Critics also say the lottery system benefits outsourcing firms that flood the system with mass applications.
The H1B visa programme tends to be more critical to outsourcing firms than US tech firms.
For instance, more than 60 per cent of the US employees of Indian outsourcing firm Infosys are H1B holders, and the company in its annual report has cited an increase in visa costs as among factors that could hurt its profitability. The top 10 recipients of H1B visas in 2015 were all outsourcing firms, according to government data compiled by the IEEE-USA, a professional organisation representing US engineers.
Sixty-five per cent of H1B petitions approved in the 2014 financial year went to tech workers, mostly from India, according to USCIS.
In several high-profile cases, American workers were asked to train H1B holders to do their jobs before being laid off themselves. The idea advanced by Miller in the tech meeting has also been pushed by the IEEE-USA. Miller previously served as a staffer for Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, who has been an outspoken critic of abuses of the H1B programme.
Trump, who has applied for H1B visas to bring in foreign workers to his own businesses sent mixed messages about the programme on the campaign trail.
He assailed it for taking jobs from US workers, but during a Republican debate last March said he was “softening” his position “because we have to have talented people in this country”.
He later issued a statement on his website saying he would “end forever the use of the H1B as a cheap labour programme”.
Trump businesses, like Trump National Golf Club and Trump Model Management, have received permission to bring in more than two dozen foreign employees on H-1B visas since 2011, according to Department of Labor data.
Trump tower meet
During the meeting last month in New York, Trump seemed to be searching for middle ground, and members of his transition team raised specific proposals, the two sources said. A third source familiar with the talks said the Trump team has also discussed the plan to change the lottery system internally.
There were more than a dozen top tech executives from some of the country’s largest tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Apple, present at the meeting.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said technology companies need to be able to recruit talent from abroad when necessary.
Trump seemed open to modifying the H-1B programme, the sources said. He said he wanted to stop “bad people” from immigrating to the United States, not “great people”, according to one account of the meeting.
Among proposals the group discussed was raising the cost of applications from large companies as a way to discourage bulk filing for the visas. Asked by Trump if they would object to that, none of the tech CEOs said they would.
“In our view, the president-elect is not hostile to H-1B visas,” said one of the sources familiar with discussions at the meeting.
While Trump could initiate some changes to the visa program with executive action, significant shifts would likely need to go through a lengthy formal rulemaking process, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration expert at Cornell Law School. Major changes would likely be subject to court challenges, he said.
Other reforms, like changing the visa cap or offering more green cards to high-tech workers, could require Congressional action, Yale-Loehr said.