Business First Look

Expedited H-1B visa program suspended: How this affects India's tech giants

An Indian delegation to the United States is urging the White House to commit to the H1-B visa program, which helps Indian IT firms outsource tens of thousands of tech workers to the United States each year.

Infosys Technologies employees move through the headquarters during a break in Bangalore, India.
Aijaz Rahi/AP/File | Caption

The United States' decision to temporarily suspend expediting processing of H-1B visas last week could have a significant impact not only on American tech giants, but Indian companies as well. 

On Friday, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced a six-month suspension of the H-1B expedited-service option, effective April 3. The announcement came just hours after India's Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and Commerce Secretary Rita Teotia urged top Trump administration officials to view the H-1B program as a matter of trade and services, rather than immigration. A number of Indian IT firms currently use the expedited service option, which lets companies pay an extra fee to get an H-1B application processed within 15 days, to outsource tens of thousands of professionals for project work in the United States each year. 

The announcement by USCIS on Friday marked what many saw as the first move in a broader reform effort under President Trump, who in November vowed to crack down on "all abuses of visa programs that undercut the American worker." As The Christian Science Monitor reported last week: 

H-1B’s stated purpose is to attract highly educated specialists to US jobs that companies can’t fill, and while it applies to a number of industries, the majority of recipients work in technology. A 2015 USCIS report to Congress found that the previous year, 65 percent of approved petitions were for computer-related jobs. Facebook is classified as an “H-1B dependent” company, with more than 15 percent of its employees relying on the program....

The “premium processing” option, first introduced in 2001, allowed companies to pay an extra $1,225 to have their petitions reviewed in two weeks, rather than the usual two to three months. As of April 3rd, that service is dead, although USCIS says that an expedited option will remain available in special cases such in emergencies and for humanitarian reasons.  

USCIS claims the measure is necessary to work through a backlog of applications, but this explanation confuses some, who point out that faster processing was cited as a reason for the premium option in the first place.

While meeting with Trump cabinet officials and lawmakers last week, Secretary Jaishankar suggested that bringing in skilled Indian workers helps the US economy and keeps companies – and jobs – in America, a primary stated goal of the Trump administration. 

''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," said Mr. Jaishankar at a briefing, as reported by the Times of India. "So, there would actually be [a] growing need for this partnership." 

Many experts agree that in order to remain competitive, the US must take a global approach in recruiting professional talent. 

"In a globalized economy, the best and the brightest want to work in the best places – and if they're unable work in the United States, or it takes too long or is too difficult, they'll find a place in Canada or Europe or India where their talents can be appreciated," Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell University immigration law professor, told NPR last month. 

This argument, Jaishankar told reporters at the end of the visit, was met with "a degree of understanding." But, he noted, he saw hope in Mr. Trump's calls for a "merit-based" immigration system while addressing a joint session of Congress for the first time last week. 

"Switching away from this current system of lower-skilled immigration, and instead adopting a merit-based system, we will have so many more benefits," the president said, according to transcripts.

This kind of "points-based system" looks for such factors as education, profession, and linguistic proficiency to determine the usefulness of prospective immigrants, the Monitor reported following the speech. 

"What I would remind you that the President himself in his address to the Congress preferred a merit-based approach to the subject," Jaishankar said, as reported by the Times of India. "We heard across the board a lot of respect expressed for Indian skills in the United States." 

This report includes material from Reuters.