The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on Friday that it was reversing its previous guidance that entry-level computer programming jobs automatically qualify as a “specialty occupation” — a basic requirement for receiving an H-1B work visa. And on Monday, the Justice Department warned that it would look closely at any employer who discriminates against American workers by showing a preference for hiring H-1B workers.
The announcements came as the government began accepting applications on Monday for H-1B visas that will be issued for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
How do the announcements change the government’s policies toward foreign workers?
The changes are more cosmetic than substantive. Visas for entry-level computer jobs have already been getting more scrutiny from immigration officials, and the Justice Department is reminding companies to follow the law.
Still, critics of the H-1B program say the Justice Department’s warning to companies not to discriminate against Americans might lead to enforcement action.
“If the Department of Justice concludes that these companies are discriminating against Americans, the entire outsourcing model becomes deeply suspect,” said Russell Harrison, director of government relations at IEEE-USA, a group that represents American tech workers.
Why is the H-1B program important?
H-1B visas are commonly used by companies to bring foreign workers to the United States to fill technical positions like software developers. Some tech companies say they need foreign workers because they cannot find enough Americans with the skills for these jobs.
There’s a lot of controversy around H-1Bs. Some of the biggest users of these work visas are outsourcing firms, many of them based in India. These firms often bring foreign workers to the United States at low wages to fill jobs once held by higher-paid Americans.
How do the new policies affect Microsoft, Facebook and other big American technology companies?
The large tech companies are unlikely to be affected much in the near term, immigration lawyers and technology executives said. Technology companies usually apply for H-1B visas when they need to fill a job with higher-skilled workers holding bachelor’s or master’s degrees.
William Moss, a spokesman for Intel, said the chip maker does not expect any impact from the change. “Intel’s foreign national population in the U.S. is largely comprised of individuals possessing unique and difficult to find skills which can only be acquired through advanced-degree, university-level education,” Mr. Moss said.
What about the Indian outsourcing firms?
Indian outsourcing firms like Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro and Infosys get a large number of H-1B visas, as do outsource companies that are based in America, such as I.B.M. and Cognizant.
Although they do hire some entry-level programmers, they have been shifting their hiring to higher-skilled and better paid workers.
Benjamin Trounson, a spokesman for Tata Consultancy Services, said the company has cut back on its use of H-1B visas in the past few years, receiving only 1,500 in 2016.
Why is this happening now?
On Monday, the federal government began accepting applications for next year’s visas. Demand for the H-1B visas so far exceeds the supply that the government is likely to cut off applications within a week, and visas will be awarded by lottery. Congress allows for 65,000 H-1Bs each year, with an additional 20,000 for workers possessing a master’s degree or higher.
The Trump administration may be using the moment to discourage what they see as abuse of the work visa.
“The timing is not coincidental,” said Ted Ruthizer, an immigration lawyer with Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel in New York. “It’s an attempt to show a mastery of the situation, that they know what companies are up to with H-1Bs and they’re not going to let them get away with any shenanigans.”
Are more changes coming that could affect the technology sector?
Probably. Companies like Amazon and Expedia took a leading position in opposing President Trump’s first executive order banning travel to the United States from seven majority Muslim countries, saying that it restricted the movement of employees and hindered their ability to attract talent.
The industry is also awaiting a possible executive order from Mr. Trump that could further change how H-1Bs and other visas used by the tech industry are issued.