Recentlyu, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced changes to H-1B visa processing that will go into effect April 1 this year. In the past, a lottery granted 20,000 visa to applicants with advanced degrees from American institutions, then an additional 65,000 visas in a lottery for all qualified applicants. This year, USCIS will flip that sequence, selecting first the 65,000 from a general pool of eligible applicants, then 20,000 advanced degree holders. According to USCIS Director Francis Cissna, “These simple and smart changes are a positive benefit for employers, the foreign workers they seek to employ, and the agency’s adjudicators, helping the H-1B visa program work better.”
Whether those changes will truly make the program “work better” remains to be seen, but they will increase the odds that H-1B visas will go to applicants with higher degrees. USCIS estimates that an additional 16 percent or 5,340 workers with advanced degrees from American institutions will receive H-1B visas as a result.
The change is consistent with President Trump’s 2017 “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, which directed government agencies to “suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.”
So far, the response has been positive from the tech industry. Tech companies have been concerned that three India-based outsourcing firms—Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro—flood the lottery with applicants, and they see the change affecting them more than others. “There has been too much abuse of the system, particularly within outsourcing firms,” says Rennie Sawade, who works at Microsoft and serves as spokesperson for The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers said.
Unless the change also affects USCIS processing, H-1B visas will remain an uncertain way to get a visa for many. Under Trump, USCIS has increased scrutiny of applications, and Requests for Evidence are up, causing increased delays and denials. In 2017, the acceptance rate dropped 13 percent from 87 to 74 percent, and that was the lowest acceptance rate in a decade.
President Trump foreshadowed the change when he tweeted, “H-1B holders in the United States can rest assured that changes are soon coming which will bring both simplicity and certainty to your stay, including a potential path to citizenship.” Nothing in the change says anything about a path to citizenship, but it’s clear that those interested in entering this year’s H-1B lottery need to consult an immigration attorney with experience working with H-1B visas. The changes may increase the odds for certain applicants, but they won’t make the system any simpler or more predictable.