Trump’s order targets H-1B programme

Donald Trump boarding Air Force One in Maryland.AFPSAUL LOEB

Donald Trump boarding Air Force One in Maryland.AFPSAUL LOEB  

Departments asked to devise plan to stop ‘fraud and abuse’ of the scheme

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered four federal departments to tighten the implementation of existing regulations and suggest new legislative and administrative measures to curb what the White House termed “abuses in our guest worker programmes”.

These forthcoming administrative and legislative measures will specially target the H-1B visa programme under which Indian technology companies bring thousands of computer professionals to the U.S. every year. “…top recipients of the H1B visa are companies like Tata, Infosys, Cognizant — they will apply for a very large number of visas, more than they get, by putting extra tickets in the lottery raffle, if you will, and then they’ll get the lion’s share of visas,” a senior administration official said ahead of the executive orders that the President was to sign. The official said the lottery system that selects workers under the H-1B programme could be an evident target of reforms.

In recent years, the demand for H-1B visa has far exceeded the total number of 85,000 available. Of these, 20,000 are for applicants with a master’s degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on Monday that it has selected the beneficiaries for this year through the lottery system, from 1,99,000 applications. Given the uncertainties surrounding the programme, there has been a drop in applications this year, from last year’s 2,36,000.

To improve the chances of winning the lottery, contracting companies file more applications than the number of people that they require. U.S. technology companies have complained that the current lottery mechanism crowds out the highly skilled workers.

The presidential order requires the U.S. departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security and State to come up with a plan to stop the “fraud and abuse” of the programme. “...if you change that current system that awards visas randomly without regard for skill or wage to a skills-based awarding, it makes it extremely difficult to use the visa to replace or undercut American workers because you’re not bringing in workers at beneath the market wage. And so it’s a very elegant of way of solving very systemic problems in the H-1B guest worker visa,” the official said.

While the programme itself and the number caps are determined by the U.S. Congress, its administration is an executive function. The plan that the four departments will draw out and could become effective before the next season of H-1B filings in 2018 will tweak the programme in order to give preference to high skilled, highly paid employees, said the official.

Lottery system

Pointing out that 80% of H-1B workers are now paid less than the median wage in their fields, the official said the reforms will revert the programme to its original intent of attracting the best the and the brightest. The measures on the anvil could include a further increase in fees for H-1B visas and a stricter monitoring of violations. The wage scales prescribed under the programme could be revised for “a more honest reflection of what the prevailing wages actually are in these fields,” the official said. The lottery system could be adjusted to give higher chances for master’s degree holders compared to bachelors.

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