Washington: The Trump administration on Friday temporarily suspended the expedited premium processing of H1B visas as part of its squeeze on what it said is an overloaded guest worker program. The suspension came even as New Delhi pressed, without success, for a fair and rational approach on the matter from a trade and business perspective.
The administration’s decision was announced just hours after top Indian mandarins, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and Commerce Secretary Rita Teotia , had urged Trump cabinet officials and lawmakers to view the H1-B visa issue as trade and services matter, and not an immigration one. ”If the Trump Administration’s intention is to bring back American companies to the United States and attract more foreign investment in America, then it is important America remains competitive. So, there would actually be (a) growing need for this partnership,” Jaishankar said at a briefing, suggesting that Indian skilled workers help the U.S economy and curtailing their entry could result in flight of jobs which the Trump administration is trying to prevent.
But even as the Indian officials said their ”forceful presentation” to Congress and the administration over the past three days ”has been met with a degree of understanding,” the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) brought the axe down on the expedited processing system which many Indian and American companies use to facilitate the entry, and sometimes rotation, of tens of thousands of skilled professionals for project work in the U.S. By paying an additional $1225 premium, companies can have a H1-B application processed within 15 days, whereas a standard process takes three to six months.
The suspension, which USCIS said may last up to six months, applies to H1-B petition requests after April 3, 2017, effectively nixing the guest worker program for this year. Typically, there are three times as many petitions as the 85,000 H1B visa limit, and companies use the expedited process to keep the wheels of commerce turning. More than half the applications come from India.
But USCIS has long believed there has also been systemic abuse of the program by unscrupulous body-shopping firms. The temporary suspension, it said, will enable it to ”process long-pending petitions, which we have currently been unable to process due to the high volume of incoming petitions and the significant surge in premium processing requests over the past few years.”
Immigration advocates however believe this is just the first of many steps by the Trump administration to curtail skilled worker inflow that critics of the program, including the President and some of his aides, believe is leaching jobs and depressing wages. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to reform and prevent misuse of the guest worker program, which is widely believed to have benefited not just Indian companies but also spurred Indian immigration to the US There is also talk of rolling back the H4 visa program, introduced by the Obama administration, that allowed spouses of H1-B visa holders to work.
Beyond the visa wrinkles though, Jaishankar expressed a “strong sense of optimism” that US-India ties continue to be on an upward trajectory as he laid the groundwork for cabinet level exchanges that will culminate in the visit to Washington DC of Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few months down the line.
“Overall, our sense was this administration has a positive view of the relationship and of India. We saw a lot of goodwill…lot of interest in taking it forward,” he said at the end of a three-day visit that saw him meet the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Homeland Secretary John Kelly for what was described as a “full-spectrum discussion.”