Trump’s plan for the H-1B visa rules would keep the poor out of America

Only the best paid.
Only the best paid.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Every year, about 300,000 people (pdf) are awarded a visa allowing them to work in the US; over half get to the country holding an highly-coveted H-1B visa.

By definition, the H-1B visa is for a ”temporary worker of distinguished merit and ability performing services other than as a registered nurse,” and technically, only 65,000 of them are available every year, plus 20,000 extras available for especially qualified workers. But in reality, each year it brings into the country many more highly skilled workers than that, from engineers to chefs and university professors. In 2015, 172,748 H-1B visas were awarded, the highest number yet.

The way these visas are assigned is, unsurprisingly, quite complicated. Certain kinds of institutions—such as universities or research facilities—can apply for however many visas they require, while most other organizations have to compete for the allotted 85,000. (People with master’s degrees can apply for one of the “especially qualified” version.)

Every year, applications open on April 1, and typically close within a few days, since the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) gets flooded with applications (for 2015, for instance, 172,500 were received). The visas are then assigned at random, through what’s known as a “visa lottery.”

The incoming presidential administration may want to change that, according to a report by Reuters, which spoke to anonymous sources close to the matter. According to Reuters’ sources, Stephen Miller, president-elect Donald Trump’s senior policy advisor, is proposing doing away with the lottery system, and replacing it with a system that privileges applications from those with job offers that pay higher salaries.

This would likely cause problems for outsourcing firms, like India’s Infosys. These firms send in mass applications on behalf of lower-level workers, often paid less competitive wages than their American counterparts. Outsourcing firms end up receiving the majority of H-1B visas: in 2014, for instance, they got a third of the available visas.

According to Reuters’ sources, the discussion on how to modify the program was initiated at meeting in December between the president elect and representatives of large, high-profile American tech companies. These are the firms that stand to benefit the most from a program that privileged visa applicants with higher salaries, since the talent they recruit tend to be more highly paid.

Trump’s businesses, too, have brought in foreign talent through H-1B visas, including the special H-1B3, for fashion models “of distinguished merit and ability”—the visa that brought Melania Trump to the US.