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H-1B visa rule change sparks fear of skilled-worker shortage

6 Mar

By David A. Arnott

The Trump administration has suspended expedited processing of H-1B visa applications, starting April 3, saying the move could last as long as six months.

Under current rules, applications for H-1B visas, which are intended for skilled foreign workers and are distributed by lottery, can take up to six months to process, according to CNN. However, for a $1,225 fee, the government guarantees a review within 15 days, something it refers to as “premium processing.”

In its announcement, the government said it aims to “reduce overall H-1B processing times,” particularly applications that haven’t been addressed in nearly six months. But some observers suggest the change is but foreshadowing of an even bigger change to the H-1B visa program: shifting from a lottery to a merit-based system.

CNN quoted Neil Ruiz of the Center for Law, Economics and Finance at George Washington University saying that removing the expedited processing means the administration may be able to “pick who to prioritize in the wait times for H-1B visas.”
That’s a big deal for companies and industries that make extensive use of workers holding those visas. CNN noted that a doctor shortage, particularly in rural areas, could be exacerbated by any delays in H-1B processing. Tech firms in Silicon Valley and elsewhere also depend on expedited processing to meet their high-skilled staffing needs, CNN reported.

President Trump has long criticized the H-1B visa program, arguing that it takes jobs away from Americans, and there are companies that have turned to foreign workers using those visas to replace American employees who were, ostensibly, paid more. However, as WBUR noted last month, many tech companies insist the H-1B program is essential, saying there’s actually a shortage of qualified American workers and that the system could be modified instead of overhauled.

A great fear among tech companies, expressed by multiple people to USA Today shortly after a draft order concerning H-1B visas was leaked in January, is that restricting those visas could harm the economy by encouraging tech workers to seek employment elsewhere. That, in turn, could have the long-term effect of hobbling entrepreneurship in the United States because a good number of those workers stay and eventually start their own companies.

Ultimately, NPR reported last week, more permanent changes to the H-1B visa system likely will have to come from Congress. Though both Republicans and Democrats in the House have pushed their own bills, NPR suggested the issue falls into the same basket as so many other issues do in Washington: Both sides agree there’s a problem, but attempts to work together have fallen apart, leaving only partisan proposals that may not even mesh with President Trump’s agenda.