Immigration
Limiting H1-B visas has been a matter of concern for India, and New Delhi has taken it up with Washington as a trade-related issue.
  • Saturday, January 12, 2019 - 12:01

Signalling his support for legal immigration, US President Donald Trump said on Friday he will change the H1-B visa system for professionals to ensure "certainty" and a path to citizenship for those on the visa.

Trump said in an early morning tweet: "H1-B holders in the US can rest assured that changes are soon coming which will bring both simplicity and certainty to your stay, including a potential path to citizenship. We want to encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the US."

Indians are the biggest beneficiaries of the temporary H1-B visas, 76% of which went to professionals from India last year, according to government statistics.

Caught in a controversy over his plans to stop illegal immigration that has been made to appear as if he is anti-immigrant, Trump appeared to be sending a message that he supports legal immigrants and opposes only those coming in illegally.

Limiting H1-B visas has been a matter of concern for India, and New Delhi has taken it up with Washington as a trade-related issue.

Major US companies have warned that the limiting of H1-B visas and the long waits for permanent residence, seriously affect their ability to get and retain talented staff.

Since it was only a tweet, there were no details about how he would go about making the changes.

Here are seven things to know:

  • An immigration expert expressed scepticism about Trump's show of concern for H1-B visa-holders. "Trump's tweet is a distraction from the fact that the administration's H-1B policies and its actions more broadly are actually making everything more difficult for legal immigrants across the board," said Doug Rand, the president of Boundless Immigration, a technology company helping people navigate the immigration process.
  • Rand, who was the assistant director for entrepreneurship in the former President Barack Obama's White House, said that Trump "is probably talking about two already known regulatory plans." These relate to a changeover to online filing of H1-B applications each April and redefining the jobs that qualify for H1-B visas, which could make it "much more difficult for lower-salary skilled workers to obtain these visas," Rand said.
  • One of the immediate concerns for H1-B visa-holders is the Trump administration's plan to end permission for their spouses - who are on H-4 visas - to work, which had been granted by the administration of former President Barack Obama. Another is the path to permanent residence and eventual citizenship because of the current minimum wait of 10 years for Indian professionals to get their green cards.
  • Trump may need the support of Congress, where the Democrats control the lower chamber, to make these changes. The Democrats are likely to demand concessions for illegal immigration in return for supporting the changes.
  • Trump has called for abolishing the immigration quotas for relatives of citizens and moving to a merit-based system similar to that of Canada and Australia. There is a 20,000 limit on the number of green cards that can be given each year to people from India and most countries.
  • In November, the Trump administration announced changes to the H1-B visa system to give preferences to applicants with advanced degrees. A total of 85,000 H1-B visas are available each year under regulations imposed by the Congress. Of these, 20,000 are reserved for those graduating with advanced degrees from US universities.
  • Immigration authorities have reportedly intensified their crackdown on H1-B visa fraud and some Indians as well as Indian companies have been caught in it. The authorities are also reported to be closely examining applicants from India and demanding more documentation. Rand said that under Trump, request for more evidence for H1-B applications has increased by 45% and the denial rate has jumped by 41%. He added, "It's no wonder that many companies and immigrants believe that the H-1B program is under siege."

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in and followed on Twitter @arulouis)