U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials announced Friday the government would suspend the premium processing route for its H-1B visa program, which allows companies to speed up the approval of temporary legal residency for skilled foreign hires. The change starts April 3 and will last for “up to six months,” officials said.
Over the fiscal year, 85,000 H-1B visas are reserved for foreign nationals with a bachelor’s degree or higher related to their “specialty occupation”—defined by USCIS as “jobs in engineering, math and business, as well as technology fields”—and a clear relationship with the employer petitioning for their legal immigrant status. The premium processing service allows employers to draw down a potentially extensive wait time to 15 days, for a fee of $1,225.
While USCIS cast the decision as an effort catch up on “the high volume of incoming petitions and the significant surge in premium requests over the past few years,” many worried the move would be only the first attempt to dismantle a worker pipeline program President Donald Trump pledged to eliminate while on the campaign trail. Already, Trump angered the tech community with a Jan. 27 executive order that banned entry to the U.S. by citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, without making exceptions for H-1B visa holders. (The ban was later struck down by federal judges, but the White House announced Monday a new ban against six countries.)
“The U.S. government is clearly telling companies not to depend on the H-1B visa going forward,” Kris Lakshmikanth, chairman of IT recruitment firm Headhunters India, told Quartz, adding that he expected the suspension to force businesses to pay a higher price for labor, due to higher demand for soon-to-be scarce H-1B workers. “Companies don’t typically keep H-1B visa holders on the bench, so there are no such employees to spare for new projects. That means companies will have to hire H-1B holders from other companies if they get new projects. That will come at a high cost now that H-1B holders are in demand.”
Others pointed out that the move would place businesses in decision-making limbo, despite its ostensible goal of prioritizing those who’ve waited months for their applications to be processed.
"The message specifically mentions they want to bring down the backlogged time, but I worry about my clients, employers and individuals who will be affected by these delays," Tahmina Watson, an attorney at Seattle-based Watson Immigration Law, told CNN. She said the suspension would keep employers from being able to “plan for their businesses and act accordingly” and was “not good for American businesses by any means."
Opponents of the program, which predominantly benefits Indian workers and companies, note that it attracts tech workers who beat out American competition with their willingness to work for lower pay. One requirement for H-1B applicants, however, is that they earn “the average wage paid to similarly employed workers in a specific occupation in the area of intended employment.”
USCIS did not halt its expedited processing service—a step up from premium processing used in cases of emergency, “severe financial loss,” a “national interest situation,” “humanitarian reasons” or a “furtherance of the cultural and social interests” of the U.S., according to its website.