Hire American. One of President Trump’s executive orders calls for a review of work visas granted to immigrants. They’re called H-1B visas, which tech companies have used to attract highly skilled talent, but there have been instances of abuse. How might the executive order affect companies and workers here on H-1B visas? NJTV News Correspondent Briana Vannozzi spoke to immigration attorney Laurie Woog about it.
Vannozzi: So, the H-1B visas go to specialized skilled foreign workers to fill jobs here in the U.S. that companies say U.S. workers can’t fill. What exactly is the Trump administration looking to change with the doling out of these visas?
Woog: The Trump administration currently feels there is a lot of abuse and fraud in the H-1B area in particular and what they would like to see is refocusing the H-1B system, as well as possibly looking at some of the other immigration categories. Refocus it from the lottery system, which is random computerized selection of the applications, to a system that would focus more on prioritizing the highest paid and highest skilled workers, which doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all. However, I think that there may be an overemphasis on the administration’s feeling that there is a lot of abuse and fraud in this area. Most employers in the H-1B area I think would not want to go through the expense, legal filing fees and uncertainty of trying to hire an H-1B worker, if they didn’t have to. Certainly there are aspects of the program that could be improved, or maybe enforcement needs to be ramped up a little bit, but what they are trying to focus on is let’s make sure that we can hire Americans wherever possible for these types of jobs.
Vannozzi: So you’re saying there is a real need, because is there a checks and balance system for these companies to prove that they did in fact look to hire an American worker first?
Woog: For the H-1B program, except in very circumscribed situations, there is really no requirement unlike with certain types of green cards that the company actually has to look for an American worker and I would not say that there is widespread abuse in this area at all. I think that for the most part, as I said, companies would certainly not want to go through the expense and difficulty and uncertainty of trying to hire a foreign worker if they didn’t have to but what many of them are finding is they’re saying simply there aren’t enough workers in certain categories for them to fill their, let’s say, high-tech positions, although I would like to emphasize the H-1B program has been around since 1990 and covers all sorts of specialized positions — doctors, lawyers accountants.
Vannozzi: So it’s not just those tech, those engineering jobs that we hear so much about.
Woog: Exactly, we hear about the computer industry which certainly has grown so much since 1990 when the program was first introduced, but you have H-1B workers in many different kinds of categories. The bottom line is it’s supposed to be for people who are highly educated, who have the equivalent of at least a bachelor’s degree or higher in their profession, some type of profession. So we see at many sectors of the economy, we see it all across the United States. H-1B workers are in universities, they’re in manufacturing, they are in all types of professions. So I think that there is a misperception out there that perhaps there are all these people coming in from other countries who are being paid less for engineering and computer jobs. And this is something that the Trump administration is reacting to.
Vannozzi: Well let me ask you about that, because New Jersey has two out of the top 10 employers who rely heavily on these H-1B visas for these workers. One is based in Somerset County, one right in Teaneck and they are, in fact, tech industries. We know that companies like Google, Microsoft rely heavily upon this. So you’re saying it’s not necessarily that industry that’s taking advantage of this or that would see the biggest changes if they were to be rolled out?
Woog: Let’s break that down into two different parts. Definitely Google, Facebook, large tech companies and some other, what they’re calling outsourcing companies which have a minimal presence in the United States are all heavy users to the H-1B program. And that has definitely grown since the inception of the program. So I think that smaller and mid-sized companies that might want to hire an H-1B worker whether it’s in tech, or another area are finding it increasingly difficult. As you know there’s a quota on the H-1B visas so that there is a total of 85,000 offered per year and this year I think they were starting in April, USCIS received close to 200,000 applications for those 85,000 visa spots and that includes 20,000 — the 85,000 includes 20,000 for advanced degree holders, people who’ve earned a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. university. So you do see heavy use of this program by some of the companies that you mentioned and I think that that can be a problem for smaller and mid-sized companies who want to hire an H-1B worker.
Vannozzi: Very quickly, before we have to wrap up, I want to ask you about those who currently have one of these visas, could their status be in question? Should companies be concerned right now as the Trump administration has asked for a review of this policy?
Woog: Well, I don’t think there’s cause for immediate concern at this moment. The executive order that just came out recently by the Trump administration — buy American, hire American on April 18 I believe it was — hasn’t called for any immediate changes. What they’re asking is for the Department of Labor, Department of Justice, State Department, etc. to review the program and see if there are ways to improve upon it and prioritize higher wages and higher skilled positions. I would say that someone with a current H-1B shouldn’t worry too much right now because as I said, there’s no immediate implementation of any changes and any large scale changes to this program of course would have to go through Congress or possibly through regulatory change, which might require notice and comment period.
Vannozzi: And we know that can take quite a while.
Woog: We know that can take months, if not years.
Vannozzi: We thank you so much for coming in and obviously we’ll be paying attention to this as these reviews come out. Thank you for coming in and talking with us.
Woog: You’re very welcome, it was my pleasure Briana.