Main image of article Does Trump Want to Reform or Kill the H-1B Visa Program?

During the Trump Presidency, there’s been some action to adjust and reform the H-1B visa system. For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has cracked down hard on companies petitioning for H-1B visas, leading to drastically heightened application-denial rates. Yet critics of the H-1B have complained that the administration hasn’t gone far enough.

Trump himself has sent mixed signals about the very existence of the H-1B program. Earlier this year, for example, he rolled out an immigration plan that would fundamentally alter how tech firms source high-skilled workers from other countries; specifically, the immigration system would focus on those immigrants who exhibit “extraordinary talent,” “professional and specialized vocations,” and “exceptional academic track records” (in the words of the proposal).

Some administration reforms have seemed to follow this lead. For example, USCIS has proposed a readjustment to the H-1B lottery process, with all H-1B applicants—including those who have advanced degrees—entering the “general pool” of 65,000 visas. Once this cap is hit, any remaining applicants with advanced degrees will end up in a 20,000-visa “master’s cap” pool. This would represent a significant departure from past lotteries, in which applicantswith advanced degrees were first placed in the “master’s cap” pool, and those not accepted in that first round are placed in the “general pool.” USCIS has suggested that the change could boost the number of H-1B holders with advanced degrees by roughly 16 percent. 

In a January 2019 Tweet, Trump also voiced support for changing the H-1B system in a way that would introduce “simplicity and certainty” to H-1B holders’ lives, while opening up a “potential path to citizenship.”

But these sentiments contrast with what Trump said on the 2016 campaign trail. “We shouldn’t have it, it’s very, very bad for workers,” he said at the time. “It’s unfair to our workers and we should end it.” His campaign surrogates, many of whom transitioned into becoming members of his administration, likewise took a hard line on the H-1B program’s existence. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, repeatedly expressed a desire to radically retool the program.

Some administration policies seem to have followed this line of Trump’s thinking. For instance, USCIS has proposed ending the H-4 EAD, which gives the spouses of H-1B holders the ability to work. USCIS termed ending the H-4 EAD an “economically significant” move that would ultimately benefit American workers, who would have “a better chance at obtaining jobs that some of the population of the H-4 workers currently hold” (in the agency’s words). The attempt to cancel this program is currently mired in the courts, with its fate up in the air, but if it goes through, it could cool the desire of tech workers overseas to apply for an H-1B; after all, they’d either have to leave their spouse behind, or their spouse wouldn’t be able to work within the U.S. 

Critics of the Trump administration’s attempts at reform would also point to the skyrocketing rate of visa denials as another sign that the U.S. government ultimately wants to strangle the H-1B program, although you could also make an argument that these added reviews and requests for evidence are merely weeding out applicants who truly don’t meet the bar for extraordinary talent. 

These denials have particularly targeted consulting and business-services firms, as opposed to tech firms. “At least 12 companies that provide professional or IT services to other U.S. companies, including Accenture, Capgemini and others, had denial rates over 30 percent through the first three quarters of FY 2019,” read a recent National Foundation for American Policy report (PDF)on the denials.“Most of these companies had denial rates between 2 percent and 7 percent as recently as FY 2015.”

Critics of the H-1B program have argued for years that those consulting firms abuse the H-1B visa in order to import cheaper subcontractors. Given how the denial rates at traditional tech companies (which really do need specialized talent wherever they can find it) haven’t really budged over the same period, there’s added weight to the argument that USCIS is just trying to actually make the H-1B system a channel for hard-to-find talent.  

In any case, Trump’s contrasting sentiments make things a little confusing. Is the Trump administration introducing restrictions to the H-1B program in a bid to make it more selective—to truly draw only the highest-quality talent from overseas? Or is the current policy more a reflection of Trump’s previously stated desire to eventually end the H-1B program entirely? The next year could give us a better idea of the administration’s ultimate goals.