After the ‘Muslim Ban’ there is more bad news for international students and immigrant workers. A new bill, titled the ‘High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017,” has been introduced in the US Congress with the intention of fixing the “broken US immigration system”. The focus of this bill is changing the H-1B and L1 visa programs for skilled immigrants.
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Senator Chuck Grassley, one of the two Congressmen responsible for originally introducing the bill, told the media, “Congress created these programmes to complement America’s high-skilled workforce, not replace it. Unfortunately, some companies are trying to exploit the programmes by cutting American workers for cheaper labour. We need programmes dedicated to putting American workers first.” Currently, the US issues 85,000 H-1B visas every year to skilled immigrants working in specialty occupations. The H-1B visas are in greater demand than supply. In 2015-16, the US received 236,000 applications.
The visas are allotted on the basis of a lottery. To qualify, the applicants must earn a minimum of 60,000 USD per annum. There is also a cap on the number of visas per country.
Proposed changes in the new act include doing away with the lottery system in favour of a selection process designed to favour graduates of American colleges and universities. The wage floor has also been raised from 60,000 USD to 1,30,000 USD. But the bill does not mention any specific skills-based criteria. It therefore fails to address the gap in STEM-skilled workforce in the US. This gap is precisely why the US had introduced OPT extensions last year, and why it needs international students. As per United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data, in 2014, 65% of approved H-1B applications went to tech workers, mostly from India.
The Indian IT industry, as well as American giants like Apple & Google, have expressed concerns over the move.
Will the bill be passed? It has backing from both Republicans and Democrats. But, Shalabh Kumar, Head of the Republican Hindu Coalition, has told media that Trump will not pass an executive order to clamp down on these visas.
However, seeing recent developments makes it probable that the clampdown on visas will happen.
If it does, the move is going to dash the hopes of many international students. Not only does the bill seek to further restrict employment opportunities, it sends a message that international students and workers are unwelcome.
The consequences for the US, especially for its higher education, tech industries and international relations, could be substantial. And very bad.