The US government has signalled a major policy shift in the H-1B work visa programme, making computer programmers ineligible for the nonimmigrant visas by default, firing a shot across the bow of India’s largest outsourcing firms.
In a memo issued over the weekend, the US Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) said previous policies and guidelines framed for the H-1B programme in 2000 would no longer be valid.
The memo indicated that previous definitions of the term “computer programmers” would need to be amended and that “it is improper to conclude based on this information that USCIS would generally consider the position of programmer to qualify as a specialty occupation.”
“These are important first steps to bring more accountability and transparency to the H1B system,” a White House official said.
“The administration is considering several additional options for the president to use his existing authority to ensure federal agencies more rigorously enforce all aspects of the programme.”
The order looks to be aimed at levelling the playing field for Silicon Valley’s biggest firms, such as Google Inc, Apple Inc and Facebook Inc, who have long complained that they lose out in the race to acquire highly skilled immigrant talent to large outsourcing firms such as Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) and Infosys Ltd — often the biggest recipients of H1B visas.
The USCIS memo is likely to cause short-term disruptions to the operations of Indian information technology (IT) firms, which typically generate most of their revenue from the US and are worried about the prospect of having to pay higher minimum salaries for workers posted on-site as the administration starts delivering on Trump’s ‘Hire American’ election pledge.
India’s software services industry lobby Nasscom insisted that the latest guidelines would not impact India’s $155-billion IT industry, as top Indian IT firms typically only send “highly experienced professionals” for onsite jobs. “The clarifying guidance should have little impact... as this has been the adjudicatory practice for years and also as several of our member executives have noted recently, they are applying for visas for higher-level professionals this year,” Nasscom said in a statement on Tuesday.
Top Indian IT firms, including TCS and Infosys, declined to comment. In recent interviews, CEOs of the industry have raised concerns over the H-1B clampdown and pledged to cut their reliance on onsite jobs.
TCS CEO Rajesh Gopinathan told PTI that the company had reduced the use of H-1B visas while creating more US IT services jobs.
“All that we can ask for is a level playing field. As long as the rules of the game are similar, we are confident in our competitiveness that we can take on the best in the world... as long as we don’t see discriminatory policies.”
The latest memo and norms are likely to affect applications for the H1B lottery process for the 2017-18 fiscal year and invite more scrutiny towards applications from large Indian outsourcing firms.
The visa lottery for 2017-18 opened on Monday.
The memo implies that a large majority of H-1B applications are still for positions involving routine tasks that do not need highly-skilled technology workers.
Trump had promised to end the lottery system for H-1B visas, which gives each applicant an equal chance at 65,000 positions each year.