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H-1B Visas: How Donald Trump Could Change America’s Skilled Worker Visa Rules

24 Jan

By Newley Purnell

During his campaign, President Donald Trump assailed a skilled-worker visa program used to send foreigners to the U.S., and in his inaugural speech Friday he said the country would “follow two simple rules; buy American and hire American.”

Indian outsourcing firms are already preparing for potential changes to visa rules, which could present a challenge because they send thousands of workers to the U.S. every year via the H-1B program.

So how much, and how quickly, could Mr. Trump change the regulations?

A significant shakeup would likely need to be approved by Congress, though there are some steps Mr. Trump could take himself immediately, analysts say.

There has been an uptick in proposed immigration bills of late. Policymakers from both sides of the aisle have likely been emboldened by Mr. Trump’s pledge to protect American workers.

“It is clear that there is growing momentum to change the H-1B and visa laws,” said Peter Bendor-Samuel, chief executive of Dallas, Texas-based technology management consulting firm Everest Group, which analyzes the outsourcing industry.

New laws would probably result in more robust restrictions targeting foreign firms like those in India’s $108 billion outsourcing industry, Mr. Bendor-Samuel said.

Last week, two prominent senators, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley and Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, said they planned to re-introduce a bill from 2007 that would require all employers seeking to hire workers on H-1B visas to make a “good faith effort” to hire Americans first.

Among other provisions, it would require that rather than H-1Bs being awarded in lotteries, the government would be required to prioritize the top foreign students who have studied in the U.S. These would include advanced degree holders, those earning a “high wage,” and those with “valuable skills.”

The bill’s planned reintroduction comes after Rep. Darrell Issa, one of the highest-profile Republicans in Congress and a supporter of Mr. Trump, said earlier this month he intends to reintroduce a bill clamping down on H-1Bs, though his appears more limited in scope that Sens. Grassley and Durbin’s.

Both bills would need to be passed by Congress and signed by Mr. Trump.

Mr. Trump will also have scope to act independently.

Eric Ruark, director of research at Arlington, Va.-based NumbersUSA, which advocates for limited immigration, said Mr. Trump could use an executive directive to tighten the U.S.’s Optional Practical Training, or OPT, program.

The OPT program gives foreign graduates in fields like science, technology, engineering or math the right to find jobs in the U.S. for up to 29 months, depending on their degree subject.

Mr. Trump could roll the time limit back to the original 12 months, the threshold until it was expanded under President George W. Bush in 2008, and tighten the eligible fields of study.

In addition, Mr. Ruark said the president could end a provision announced under President Barack Obama in 2014 that allows spouses of H-1B visa holders to work in the U.S.

While the timing for any potential action remains unclear under Mr. Trump, Mr. Ruark said H-1B policies are an issue “we feel strongly will be addressed in his administration’s first year.”