'Buy American, Hire American' Order Means More H1B Visa Changes Coming

In his ongoing effort to crack down on illegal immigration and undermine the tech sector, President Trump (aka 45), has issued a new Buy American, Hire American executive order. While it makes no changes to the H1B visa program at the moment, Silicon Valley should be bracing for new rules soon as at least four government agencies must propose reforms.

Right now, H1B visas are issued by random lottery. About 85,000 are issued each year, with 20,000 earmarked for candidates with a master's degree or higher. Reports say that about 70% go to people from India, many who come to the tech rich Silicon Valley area for salaries ranging from $65,000-$70,000 a year through outsourcing firms Tata, Infosys, and Cognizant. Google and Microsoft can pay upwards of $100,000. The visas are incredibly popular, and applications are so heavy that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) hits its cap within days. The New York Times reported that the cap was hit this year within four days.

A senior administration official said the goal is to eventually move away from an H1B visa lottery geared toward low-wage workers and move toward a system favoring more skilled and better educated workers. “You're creating an entirely new structure for awarding these visas. I mean, it is a completely -- it is a total transformation of the H-1B program,” the official said (via Fortune).

The government agencies tasked with proposing reforms are the Departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security, and State. The goal is to “crack down on fraud and abuse.”

The order comes as 45 and the various agencies have been making modifications and clarifications to existing law (via National Law Review). For example:

  • On April 5, the Department of Labor announced plans to protect U.S. workers from H1B program discrimination by providing greater transparency and oversight in coordination of efforts by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.
  • On April 3, USCIS revealed it would take a more targeted approach when making site visits across the country to H1B petitioners and to the worksites of H1B employees, beginning immediately. USCIS will now focus its enforcement efforts on auditing employers who employ H1B computer personnel for contract positions,
  • On March 31, USCIS issued a directive clarifying whether the position of “Computer Programmer” is deemed an an H1B-eligible “specialty occupation.” It revoked as obsolete a 17-year-old directive that offered guidance to those making H1B visa determinations on the computer technology sector. 

While the executive order may have good intentions, it doesn't take into account that U.S. schools lag behind numerous foreign countries in tech education, making some U.S. candidates less qualified than those from overseas. A Pew Research report in February said that U.S. academic achievement is in the middle of the pack compared to other countries in science, math and reading–all essential elements for a tech job. 

The ham-handed approach to H1B visas at the moment could have a significant impact going forward on the quality of work we see coming out of Silicon Valley. Hopefully companies hiring overseas talent can bolster their job documentation efforts enough to assuage the current onslaught in proving hired candidates are indeed essential to the company and provide a benefit not found in applicants from the United States. Of course, if a U.S. candidate is more qualified, but a less-qualified overseas candidate will accept less money, hopefully companies will do what is best for the consumer, and not necessarily best for the bottom line.

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