The Trump administration plans changes to the H-1B visa lottery that could boost the odds of visa applicants who have a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. university.
Big tech companies would win and outsourcing companies would lose under a change to the way the lottery for the H-1B visa is run.
The administration of President Donald Trump plans to boost the number of highly educated foreign workers getting the H-1B, which is intended for jobs requiring specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher. It appears the administration intends to raise the bar on education levels for H-1B recipients.
The new lottery process is to be announced this month, the White House said in a scheduling document for new federal rules. A public comment period is expected to follow. It’s unclear whether changes would be finalized in time for next year’s H-1B lottery in the spring.
“It seems like in an era where we, and I believe rightfully so, beat up on the administration for a bunch of things,” said Harvard Business School professor William Kerr, “This is one that you’re like, ‘Hey, I think that makes sense.’ ”
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The H-1B visa has become a flashpoint in the immigration debate and a target for Trump, particularly over use of the visa by outsourcers, which rake in the lion’s share of H-1Bs, mostly for bachelor’s degree holders. Heavily relied upon by large technology companies — including Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple — the visa is condemned by critics as a mechanism for supplanting American workers with cheaper foreign labor.
New H-1B visas are capped at 85,000 per year, which includes 20,000 workers with a master’s or higher. But in recent years, applications have grown and now vastly outnumber available visas.
Federal documents did not make clear how the lottery might be changed, other than to say it may include “a modified selection process” and that the new system will boost the odds of applicants who have a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. university.
However, online magazine Politico, citing an unnamed source in the Department of Homeland Security, reported that the Trump administration intends to change the way people with master’s degrees or higher from U.S. universities are fed into the lottery.
Under the current system, they’re first run through a 20,000-visa “master’s cap” sub-lottery. Then, if any applications are left over, they’re put into the main 65,000-visa lottery.
The reported change would put those higher-educated workers into the main lottery first, and any left over would go into the 20,000 master’s lottery, flipping the system.
“It’s kind of like you get two full shots on goal,” said Kerr, author of the recently published book “The Gift of Global Talent.”
Howard University professor Ronil Hira said he crunched numbers using federal government data and determined that based on last year’s H-1B numbers, the change would yield nearly 4,000 more visas for advanced-degree holders.
However the government tweaks the lottery, its stated intention to prioritize higher-educated workers would help big tech firms — which tend to obtain significantly more H-1B visas for employees with master’s degrees or higher than they do for workers with bachelor’s degrees, said Hira, who has argued in testimony before Congress several times in favor of adjusting the H-1B system to favor advanced-degree holders.
Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook declined to comment on the lottery change. Google and Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
Outsourcing and staffing companies such as Infosys, Cognizant, Tata, Wipro and Deloitte tend to obtain more visas for bachelor’s degree holders, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration.
New Jersey-based Cognizant, for example, obtained about 22,000 visas last year for workers with bachelor’s degrees, compared to about 6,500 for master’s degree holders. At large outsourcing firms, many of the higher-educated H-1B recipients have degrees from foreign universities, mostly in India, a category of workers that would not get a boost from the planned lottery change, Hira said. These companies would likely have a harder time securing H-1B visas under the new system, he said, adding that he favors the change.
“I don’t know who would argue against it other than the companies who are going to be disadvantaged,” Hira said. “If the goal is to increase the best and brightest here, then this is a very modest but sensible step.”
Still, it remains possible that large outsourcers would seek to game the new lottery system by flooding it with a great many applications, Kerr said.
Infosys, Cognizant, Tata, Wipro and Deloitte did not respond to requests for comment on the coming lottery change.
Information from Seattle Times business staff is included in this report.