The new administration and the H-1B visa
Friday, December 2, 2016
President-elect Trump’s stance on immigration reform, along with his appointment of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as attorney general, could mean trouble for the H-1B visa program. In an economy where there is already a shortage of workers to fill tech and other high-skill jobs, any further limitation on H-1B visas would be crippling to U.S. businesses.
The H-1B program grants temporary, non-immigrant status to professionals in specialty occupations. The workers must be sponsored by a U.S. employer, which must cover all business expenses in connection with the sponsorship, amounting to thousands of dollars per sponsored employee. Even though the current annual cap of 85,000 visas does not come close to filling all the vacancies in the United States, employers rely on H-1B workers to make up some of the shortfall. Many of these visa holders are scientists, engineers or computer programmers.
Meanwhile, those who advocate for greater restrictions on immigration claim that the H-1B program is hurting American workers. Yet, too few native-born citizens are graduating from college with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) fields to come anywhere close to filling all available vacancies. Current projections only show the number of such vacancies increasing and continuing to outpace STEM graduates at an even greater rate.
The appointment of Jeff Sessions, a staunch immigration reform detractor, as attorney general is an indication that a hardline stance against immigration reform may prevail in the new administration. The most influential business lobby, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urged the president-elect toward moderation when it comes to immigration and work visa programs. Yet, it is difficult to predict where Trump will ultimately come down on the H-1B. During the election cycle, he changed positions a few times. At first against the program, last spring, Trump softened, saying, “We need highly skilled people in this country, and if we can’t do it, we’ll get them in.”
Subsequently, Trump released a statement claiming that he “will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
The U.S. tech sector is particularly dependent on foreign-born workers to fill openings that would otherwise remain vacant. According to Bloomberg, “In two Silicon Valley counties, two-thirds of workers in computing and math occupations were born outside the United States. Other occupations also have large shares of immigrant employees.
There are just not enough U.S. STEM graduates to take up the slack that already exists. Further limitation of the H-1B program by the incoming administration would slow growth in the tech sector, one of the most important segments of the U.S. economy. The global economy won’t wait for the United States, and U.S. tech companies may not, either. Ultimately, if tech companies can’t bring the workers to where the jobs are, they’ll be forced to take the jobs to the workers – and that would leave fewer openings for all workers in the U.S., both domestic and foreign-born.