US immigration officials have put a severe brake on the processing of H-1B visas over the coming months, potentially sowing confusion for companies that rely on foreign engineers and other experts to fill holes in their employee ranks.
Friday’s announcement was billed as an administrative move to reduce a backlog at US Citizenship and Immigration Services. It comes as the Trump administration has been considering deeper changes to the H-1B system, in order to prevent suspected abuse by companies using the visas to bring in cheaper workers rather than hire Americans.
US tech companies, which are heavy users of H-1Bs, have been lobbying heavily in Washington to prevent new restrictions on hiring foreign talent. But even without a political overhaul, the bureaucratic change announced on Friday is likely to bite deeply, immigration lawyers said.
The US opens the application window at the start of April for the 85,000 H-1Bs issued each year. It usually receives far more applications than this, leading to a lottery and extensive delays before applicants know if they will get a visa.
On Friday, USCIS said that this year it would suspend an accelerated application process that lets foreign workers find out within as little as a month, for an extra fee.
Known as “premium processing”, this expedited system is used in “close to 100 per cent” of the applications from companies such as Microsoft and Goldman Sachs that use the system extensively, said Matthew Dunn, a partner at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel in New York.
Immigration lawyers warned that delaying this year’s visa processing would mean many workers would not find out if they can work in the US until as late as August or September. That would make it hard for companies to plan their staffing and leave workers in limbo, they said.
“Having to sit for months on end and not knowing if you will have this person starting is crippling for any company,” said Piyumi Samaratunga, a partner at Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete. H-1Bs are usually reserved for people with critically important skills, making the delays particularly problematic, she added.
The impact is also likely to be felt by people already on H-1Bs and their families. Among those caught by the delays, said Mr Dunn, will be workers with visas who are trying to switch to a new employer; executives working in the US who are getting near the end of their visa and will not be able to travel abroad; and the families of visa holders who are looking for permission to work in the US themselves.
The suspension of premium processing will also rob the USCIS of significant revenues. The agency charges $1,225 for the service, bringing in many millions of dollars in fees in a normal year.
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