US President Donald Trump criticized H-1B skilled worker visas on the campaign trail and came into office pledging to crack down on what he sees as abuses of the program that hurt Americans’ job prospects. Trump’s hard line on H-1Bs has upset parts of the business community, particularly the tech sector, which relies on these visas to fill critical roles in high-skill fields like software engineering where US talent is scarce. Despite the president’s opposition to the program and some movement in Congress around reforming it, this year’s H-1B application process opened earlier this year with no rule changes.
Nonetheless, Trump’s government has taken some steps to limit or discourage the use of the H-1B. Trump issued an executive order in April calling for a crackdown on “fraud and abuse” within the H-1B and other visa programs, while the Justice Department has warned employers that it will prosecute companies who overlook American workers to sponsor H-1B visa holders. The administration temporarily suspended premium processing of H-1B visas this year, has slowed down visa processing for business travelers, and has tightened standards for renewal of the skilled work visa.
In other words, Joshua Brustein reports at Bloomberg, “a crackdown has been in the works, albeit more quietly,” and that crackdown has also included an increase in the number of H-1B applications being challenged:
Starting this summer, employers began noticing that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was challenging an unusually large number of H-1B applications. Cases that would have sailed through the approval process in earlier years ground to a halt under requests for new paperwork. The number of challenges — officially known as “requests for evidence” or RFEs — are up 44 percent compared to last year, according to statistics from USCIS. The percentage of H-1B applications that have resulted in RFEs this year are at the highest level they’ve been since 2009, and by absolute number are considerably higher than any year for which the agency provided statistics.
It’s not clear how many applications are being rejected, Brustein notes, but the uncertainty raised by this quiet change in policy has employers and workers applying for H-1Bs nervous. Immigration lawyers tell Brustein the level of scrutiny USCIS is giving to visa applications under the Trump administration is highly unusual, if not in fact unprecedented. This uncertainty is already causing some employers who customarily rely on foreign talent hired on H-1Bs to rethink their talent strategies, slowing down hiring from overseas and even thinking about staffing up their global offices in countries that are more welcoming of international hiring.