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Tech sector concern over H-1B visa curtailment threat from Trump administration

Foreign technology workers could have a harder time finding work in the US following the election of Donald Trump, who has chosen Senator Jeff Sessions - a sceptic of the H-1B visa programme - to be his Attorney General.

H-1B visas admit 65,000 workers and another 20,000 graduate student workers each year. The tech industry, which has lobbied to expand the programme, may now have to fight a rearguard action to protect it, immigration attorneys and lobbyists said.

Trump’s stance on the programme has confounded some. While campaigning to be President, he sometimes criticised the visas, while at other times praising them for their importance in retaining foreign talent.

However, Sessions has long sought to curtail the programme and introduced legislation last year aiming to make the visas less available to large outsourcing companies such as Infosys. Such firms - by far the largest users of H-1B visas - provide foreign contractors to US companies looking to slash costs.

“Thousands of US workers are being replaced by foreign labour,” Sessions said at a February hearing.

US tech companies sent a letter to Trump last week which outlined their policy priorities, including immigration reform that would make it easier to keep high-skilled workers in the US beyond the temporary H-1B visa.

The visa is intended for specialist occupations that typically require a college education. Companies use them in two main ways to hire technology workers.

Tech firms such as Microsoft and Google typically hire highly skilled, well-paid foreign workers that are in short supply. They help many of them secure the so-called green cards that allow them to work in the US permanently.

By contrast, firms such as Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, both based in India, use the visas to deploy lower-paid contractors that critics say rarely end up with green cards. Neither company commented on their use of the visas.

H-1B visas are assigned through a lottery once a year by US Citizenship and Immigration Services. This year, companies filed 236,000 petitions for the 85,000 available visas, a cap set in US law. They are awarded to employers - not employees - and are tied to specific positions.

Both Democratic and Republican critics have argued that companies such as Walt Disney and Southern California Edison, a utility, have used the programme to terminate in-house IT employees and replace them with cheaper contractors.

Sessions last year urged the then Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate Southern California Edison’s use of H-1B visas in a letter that was also signed by Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders, Richard Durbin and Sherrod Brown.

Federal investigators accused Infosys of using easier-to-obtain business travel visas to import foreign workers who were required to have H-1B visas. Investigators also alleged that Infosys told foreign workers to lie to US officials about the cities where they would work.

In the settlement, Infosys denied the allegations, but agreed to retain a third-party auditor for two years and to provide the government with detailed descriptions of what its visa holders were supposed to be doing in the US.

However, some Trump allies expect him to keep the programme mostly intact, including Shalabh ‘Shalli’ Kumar, an Indian-born Chicago businessman who donated $900,000 to his campaign.

“He has said to us that these are amazing people and it would be crazy to let them go,” Kumar said in an interview.

Kumar has urged Trump to eliminate country-by-country quotas that create long waits for Indian and Chinese nationals to get green cards.

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