- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2017

The Justice and Homeland Security departments issued startling warnings Monday to companies applying for the country’s most prominent foreign guest-worker program, telling executives to look for Americans to fill those jobs first and promising more investigations and prosecutions of businesses that abuse the system.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is part of the Homeland Security Department, also released rules on Friday that could curtail the number of computer programmers who get H-1B visas, designated for specialty occupations that American companies have a tough time filling.

The crackdowns were announced as USCIS opened the application process on Monday for H-1B visas next year, kicking off what has become a mad scramble for the 85,000 slots highly coveted by American tech companies.

The moves seemed designed to appease President Trump’s supporters, who urged him to make good on campaign promises to eviscerate the H-1B program, saying it sparked unfair competition with American workers. They were hoping for major reforms before the H-1B application process began this week but said Mr. Trump failed.

“Personally, I am still waiting for the president to just tell us his plan and tell us he cares about this issue. The silence and inaction, together, make it hard for me to believe the president is still on the side of the American worker as it relates to H-1B visas, outsourcing and offshoring,” said Sara Blackwell, a Florida lawyer who has represented employees who lost jobs to H-1B visa holders.

She campaigned with Mr. Trump last year, believing she had found a champion for workers, but now says the president has disappointed her by allowing the H-1B application process to kick off without reforms.

“No one wins but the billionaires,” she said.

The H-1B visa is perhaps the marquee business visa, giving high-skilled workers a chance to live and hold a job in the U.S. — and often to gain a foothold that leads to permanent status and eventually to citizenship.

Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, followed that path, claiming an H-1B visa in the 1990s as a fashion model and eventually winning a green card signaling legal permanent residency.

The application process is considered a good yardstick of the health of the American high-end economy. Years when the applications are snapped up quickly are projected to be strong economically.

Over the past couple of years, more than 230,000 applications were filed in just the first few days. USCIS shut off applications after only a week and resorted to a lottery system to pick the eventual winners.

Computer programmers and other tech workers complain that companies use H-1B workers from Asia to undercut Americans — going so far as to lay off U.S. workers and forcing them to train their foreign replacements who are hired for far less pay.

Stories like that spurred the Obama administration to open an investigation into H-1B abuses, but officials reportedly closed it last year without bringing charges against anyone.

The new administration is promising more scrutiny.

USCIS promised to continue random site visits to make sure companies that use H-1B workers are abiding by the rules, and the agency invited American workers to file complaints if they are undercut.

Companies that rely heavily on H-1B workers will shoot up the priority list for audits, USCIS said.

Late last week, the agency also released guidance telling officers not to accept computer programmers automatically and that the ability to write computer code is not enough on its own to earn admittance.

Meanwhile the government’s attorneys warned companies to try to hire Americans before turning to the H-1B program.

“The Justice Department will not tolerate employers misusing the H-1B visa process to discriminate against U.S. workers,” said Tom Wheeler, acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division.

He said the administration will investigate and vigorously prosecute any violators.

The warning marked a major break with the Obama and Bush administrations — though less than some analysts had hoped for.

“It strikes me as a kind of consolation prize for the H-1B reform people,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies.

He said Mr. Trump would have been hard-pressed to make large-scale changes to the program, given he has been in office for less than three months and hasn’t nominated a head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees the program.

Still, Mr. Krikorian said Mr. Trump might have made some corrections such as scrapping the lottery system used to dole out applications and instead saying those promised the highest salaries would be selected. That move could have hamstrung companies that want to use foreign workers to undercut Americans’ wages.

The issue unites Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Several lawmakers have been trying to strike a deal on broad changes designed to prevent abuse of the H-1B visa.

Business groups say that while they rely on H-1B workers, the system is outdated and doesn’t serve Americans, foreigners or the needs of the economy.

“It also fuels chaos, inefficiencies and criticism around the program,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, an advocate for reform of U.S. immigration policy for highly educated foreign professionals.

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