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News Story

U.S. to Temporarily Suspend Fast-Track Processing of H-1B Visas

Move not related to revised travel restrictions announced Monday

By REBECCA BALLHAUS
The Wall Street Journal
March 6, 2017 6:54 p.m. ET

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said it plans to temporarily suspend fast-track processing for the skilled-worker visa program, a move that could slow down the process of hiring foreign workers for U.S. companies.

Starting April 3 and running for up to six months, the agency will no longer allow H-1B applicants to pay an additional fee of $1,225 to get a response within 15 days—a program known as premium processing. Regular processing, where the fee varies based on the type of employment being sought, can last between three and six months.

Paying for premium processing doesn’t affect the outcome of the annual lottery, which applicants must win to receive a visa. In 2015, 233,000 applications were filed in less than a week for the visas, which are capped at 85,000. In past years, applicants who won the lottery and had included the additional fee in their application would be processed at a faster rate, while those who lost the lottery wouldn’t have their checks cashed.

U.S. companies can sponsor 65,000 foreigners with at least a bachelor’s degree from any university, and an additional 20,000 visas go to individuals with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions. Universities and nonprofits, which aren’t subject to a cap, also use H-1Bs to hire many workers each year.

TRUMP'S FIRST 100 DAYS

Regardless of processing time, new holders of H-1B visas are required to wait until Oct. 1 to begin work.

USCIS said Friday it was suspending premium processing to improve overall processing times for H-1B visas. The announcement wasn’t connected to the new executive order on travel restrictions that was released Monday, and doesn’t make changes to who can apply for H-1B visas, how many will be doled out, or to whether certain workers or companies will be given a preference in the lottery.

One group that could be affected by the change is graduating students, who aren’t allowed to remain in the U.S. while the status of their H-1B applications are pending.

While the move threatens to slow the hiring of foreign workers for some companies, it falls short of President Donald Trump’s campaign-trail rhetoric on the skilled-worker visa system. In 2015, Mr. Trump criticized efforts to increase the annual cap on H-1B visas, and in his inauguration speech, he said the country would “follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American.”

His rhetoric has sparked fear of a crackdown among some foreign workers in the U.S. on H-1B visas and among companies who rely heavily on the visa program. H-1B visas are valid for three years and can be renewed for another three years. After that, workers can apply for green cards, though the wait often takes years, during which they continue working on H-1Bs.

The lack of any significant moves on the visas by Mr. Trump has angered some groups. “This doesn’t do anything to deliver on the president’s campaign promise to end the H-1B as a tool to replace American workers,” said Russell Harrison, director of government relations for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers USA, which represents American tech workers.

“What matters is preventing H-1B outsourcers from dominating the program again this year—suspending premium processing is just a distraction.”

Three of the top five H-1B employers in 2014, the latest year for which data are available, were outsourcing firms from India, according to Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data analyzed by Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University.

A draft of an executive order for Mr. Trump’s consideration calls for the government to re-examine a range of visa programs to ensure they protect “the jobs, wages and well-being of United States workers.” That includes the H-1B visa program.

Write to Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

Appeared in the Mar. 07, 2017, print edition as 'U.S. to Suspend H-1B Fast Track.'

 

 

 

 

 

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