In the effort to reduce the immigrant population in the US and to limit the number of jobs occupied by immigrants, the GOP has employed a number of different tactics, ranging from egregious executive orders (currently deemed unconstitutional) to threats from the DOJ promising to withhold funding from so-called sanctuary cities. Another, less biting, tactic has been on the Congressional docket since January when several House Representatives put forward three bills seeking to change the process of distributing H-1B Visas.
What Are H-1B Visas?
H-1B Visas are given on a yearly basis to foreign nationals who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher so they may perform “specialty occupations.” Eighty-five thousand are given out annually – this is known as the H-1B cap. Though H-1B workers are not unionized, there are provisions in place that prevent employers from paying low wages or using the visa program to break strikes. In order to hire a worker through this program, employers must attest to the fact that they are not taking advantage of the system to lower workplace standards or to harm US workers in any way whatsoever. However, some fear that there are too many loop holes in the H-1B program making it easier for employers to bypass certain worker protections.
The Administration’s Memo
A recent memo from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) targets the IT industry – a major proponent of the H-1B program – by overturning a memo from 2000 that declared computer programming to be a specialty occupation. Now following the new memo, not all computer programming jobs are available to H-1B visa applicants.
USCIS pointed to the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), which states that someone with a two-year degree may qualify for an entry level computer programmer position. And since H-1B visas only apply to occupations that require a bachelor’s degree or higher, H-1B computer programmers would have to be paid a higher wage than entry-level workers. USCIS thinks this will deter IT companies from hiring foreign nationals.
What’s on the Legislative Docket?
In addition to the administration’s policy memo, Congress may enact legislation pertaining to the visa program in question. After months of trying to construct a bipartisan bill, California Representatives Darrell Issa (Rep.) and Zoe Lofgren (Dem.) decided to propose two separate measures earlier this year. Representative Issa’s bill, the Protect and Grow American Jobs Act (HR 170), would raise the wage threshold to $100,000, meaning if an employer hires an H-1B worker for less than that amount, it must be shown that no American applicant qualified for the position. The current cutoff is $60,000.
Representative Lofgren’s bill, the High Skilled Integrity Fairness Act of 2017, has a much broader vision that includes annulling limitations based on the country of origin. The measure would allot 20 percent of the H-1B cap to startups to give small businesses a chance to compete for skilled workers. Additionally, the bill seeks to replace the H-1B lottery system with a system that prioritizes the highest paying employers. For a run-down of the bill’s key points, visit Representative Lofgren’s website.
And for a breakdown of a third, bi-partisan bill, read this press release from Senator Chuck Grassley.
On April 18th, President Trump signed an executive order at a Snap-on tool factory in Wisconsin, promising to compile a report on ways to reform the H-1B visa program. Overall, the order is rather vague and as Senator Charles Schumer put it, “[…] it’s just words — he’s calling for new studies. It’s not going to fix the problem. It’s not going to create a single job.”
In the end, one wonders why so much attention has been given to a program that accounts for 0.6 percent of US jobs. The effect that H-1B reforms would have on the larger economy remains a looming question.