The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has reversed course after weighing a law change that would prevent foreign tech-industry workers from keeping their visas longer than six years.
WASHINGTON — Under intense pressure from the business community, the Trump administration appears to be backing away from a proposal that could have forced foreign tech workers out of the country.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security, on Monday said it was still conducting a thorough review of worker visa programs. But after McClatchy reported over New Year’s weekend that the agency was weighing a specific law change that would prevent foreign tech-industry workers from keeping their visas longer than six years, the agency reversed course.
“The agency is considering a number of policy and regulatory changes to carry out the President’s Buy American, Hire American Executive Order, including a thorough review of employment-based visa programs,” Jonathan Withington, chief of media relations for the immigration-services agency, said Monday.
“What we can say, however, is that USCIS is not considering a regulatory change that would force H-1B visa holders to leave the United States by changing our interpretation of section 104(c) of AC-21, which provides for H-1B extensions beyond the 6 year limit,” the agency told McClatchy. “Even if it were, such a change would not likely result in these H-1B visa holders having to leave the United States because employers could request extensions in one-year increments under section 106(a)-(b) of AC21 instead.”
Withington said the agency was never considering such a move. But multiple sources with direct knowledge of the conversations said that was not true, and that the administration had shifted over the last two weeks, in response to the swift and harsh reaction from the business community.
Indeed, the tech industry was stunned to learn the administration was considering a measure that would prevent hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from keeping their H-1B visas while their green-card applications were pending. The possible change, part of President Donald Trump’s “Buy American, Hire American” initiative promised during the 2016 campaign, would reinterpret discretion given to the administration under the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act.
The criticism came quickly, including from Republicans.
“It would be tremendously bad policy to tell highly skilled individuals who are applying for permanent residency and have been working in the U.S. for several years that they are no longer welcome,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “This policy would harm American business, our economy, and the country. Further, it is inconsistent with the goals of a more merit-based immigration system.”
On Friday, Reps. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., and Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, sent a letter to Trump urging him “not to deport H-1B holders awaiting permanent residency processing.”
“We strongly believe this action would be harmful to the American economy, credibility and relations with India and the Indian-American community,” wrote Yoder and Gabbard, who are members of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.
More than half of all H-1B visas have been awarded to Indian nationals, according to the Pew Research Center. So any policy change would have a particular impact on that community of foreign workers.
The Indian tech industry, backed by the Indian government, quickly began to mobilize against the Trump administration’s move to weed out foreign tech workers. Groups that represent Indian companies and workers — such as the National Association of Software and Services Companies, Immigration Voice and Compete America — started deploying lobbyists and other representatives at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to argue against possible regulatory changes that could prevent foreign tech-industry workers from keeping their visas longer than six years, according to U.S. and India-based industry sources and worker advocates familiar with the plans.
“Nobody’s happy with it,” said an industry source familiar with the plans. “Everyone’s trying to figure out exactly what’s going on and also trying to explain to the administration, if they’re thinking of doing this, it’s a horrible idea and these are the reasons why.”
The Indian minister of foreign affairs and embassy did not respond to questions. But industry sources working the issue in Washington, D.C., say the government is working “hand and glove” with industry against any possible changes. “They’re deeply concerned about this issue,” said a U.S. source who has been briefed on the Indian government’s worries. “You see the whole IT industry in India is dependent on the work that they get from the U.S.”
The H-1B program, created by the Immigration Act of 1990, was intended to allow U.S. companies to hire foreign workers with specialized skills that companies could not find in the United States. Tech giants such as Facebook and Microsoft have long argued that the 85,000 annual cap on these visas is too low and that they need to bring in more foreign tech workers because they can’t find enough highly skilled American workers.
But the program has also come under controversy as companies such as Disney, Southern California Edison and the University of California, San Francisco have been accused of using the program to lay off American IT workers.
John Miano, a lawyer who represents U.S. workers who say that they have lost jobs unfairly to low-skilled H-1B visa holders, said American workers have in Trump a president who can’t be bought off by rich executives.
“The H-1B program is the best legislation money can buy and, under Trump, they are discovering their money has no effect,” Miano said.
Industry insiders say the idea of forcing tech workers, some of whom have been here for over a decade, to leave seems so outrageous that it should be easy to prove it wasn’t the intent of Congress when lawmakers passed the legislation. But they’ve grown increasingly concerned as Trump’s immigration team has sought to carry out what they regard as onerous measures intended to drive out foreign workers.
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Citing a proposal to eliminate the visas for the spouses of H-1B workers, one industry source said the Trump team is already taking steps to make the program so burdensome that it could potentially accomplish the same goal even if regulations are not changed.
“They’re trying to encourage these people to leave our country,” the source said.