- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Trump administration finalized a major overhaul Tuesday of the H-1B visa, the country’s premier high-tech guest-worker program, moving to stop companies from ousting American workers in favor of cheaper foreign labor.

Homeland Security and the Labor Department each announced updated rules that, taken together, will limit the kinds of jobs companies can fill with H-1B workers, subject them to stiffer policing, curtail use of H-1B visa mills that churn out tech workers, and raise the standard for wages that must be offered to Americans before companies can apply for a visa to bring in a foreign guest-worker.

“I cannot overstate how big a deal this is,” said Ken Cuccinelli, the No. 2 official at Homeland Security.

The H-1B is known as the specialty visa, and is most commonly associated with technology workers, though it’s been used for everything from journalists to professors to horse trainers to fashion models. First lady Melania Trump, for example, originally came to the U.S. in the 1990s on an H-1B visa.

In recent years, the H-1B has become tarnished by stories of American workers being fired from jobs as companies look to bring in cheaper foreign workers. In one case, hundreds of Disney tech employees were fired — but not before some were forced to train their H-1B replacements.

Lawsuits filed on behalf of those workers all failed because, in the words of their lawyer, what Disney was doing was legal.

Fraud is also rife, officials say.

Federal prosecutors in August announced an indictment against an Indian immigrant who lived in Northern Virginia and, according to court documents, concocted fake job openings and bogus supporting documents to obtain H-1B visas, which they then sold for thousands of dollars as a sponsorship fee.

Fueled by those kinds of stories, President Trump in 2016 vowed action, and Tuesday’s changes were a major step toward fulfilling that promise, officials said.

“It is never acceptable for the employment of foreign labor to erode the economic security of American workers and their families,” said Patrick Pizzella, the deputy secretary at the Labor Department.

The H-1B program is capped at 85,000 new visas per year, with 20,000 of those visas earmarked for foreigners who obtained post-graduate degrees from U.S. institutions.

Visas are generally good for three years, though they can be renewed, and as of last year there were more than 580,000 valid H-1B visas.

Though the H-1B is not an immigrant visa, many holders do find ways to adjust to legal permanent residents, putting them on the path to citizenship.

The program receives far more petitions than visas available, and Homeland Security holds a lottery each year to determine which companies get slots.

Some companies, known as visa mills will apply for thousands of visas, then hire those workers out to other companies. As many as two-thirds of all tech H1-B visas go to intermediary companies, according to the new Homeland Security rule.

The new rules redefine the employer-employee relationship to try to cut down on intermediary companies, and third-party placement visas will be limited to only one year, rather than three.

The Labor Department’s wage changes, meanwhile, will require companies to offer a higher pay rate to Americans before they can seek an H-1B worker for the job.

Those changes will take effect this week, while the Homeland Security rules will take effect in December.

Officials said they were moving with speed to have the rules in place as the economy begins to pick up from the coronavirus pandemic, millions of out-of-work Americans try to return to their jobs, and companies look to fill openings.

“It’s all moving in the right direction,” said Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA, which pushes for stricter immigration controls.

She said, though, that a major piece was missing. The Trump administration had been considering limiting entry in the H-1B visa lottery to the top-paying jobs. That could have put upward pressure on wages.

Administration officials said Tuesday that change is still in the works.

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