By The Wall Street Journal
Washington – The federal government on Monday began accepting visa applications for a fresh round of high-skilled foreign workers, without the wholesale changes President Donald Trump promised in his campaign.
His administration did, though, announce one shift that could put pressure on outsourcing companies that typically win a large share of the coveted visas.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Service said it would direct more inspectors in the H-1B program to the controversial outsourcing companies, many of them based in India.
Those firms have drawn scrutiny because their US subsidiaries sometimes import employees to do work once performed by Americans.
The companies say they are adhering to the program’s rules and only hire foreigners because they can’t find Americans for the jobs, but they are under substantial political scrutiny.
Demand for the program badly outstrips the supply so, as in past years, the government plans a lottery to decide which companies get them.
Last year, the government received more than 236,000 applications for the 85,000 visas, of which 20,000 are reserved for people with advanced degrees.
That exceeded the previous year’s record and was the fourth year in a row in which the cap was reached within five days.
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump promised to reduce legal as well as illegal immigration, saying foreign workers drive down wages and threaten American jobs.
At times, he was particularly critical of the H-1B program, though at other times he praised it.
“These are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay,” he said in a statement last March.
“I remain totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse.”
There is also pressure in Congress for changes. One bipartisan bill pending in the House, for instance, would punish companies seeking H-1B visas by imposing burdensome requirements if they don’t pay workers at least $100,000 a year.
The current threshold to avoid those requirements is $60,000.
With no major changes to the program announced, the administration instead said it would work to better detect fraud and abuse in the program by changing how it targets companies for inspection.
Under the new rules, companies will be prioritized when they have a high ratio of H-1B workers employed and when the employees work off-site at another company’s location.
Both of those criteria would lead to targeting of outsourcing companies.
The agency said it also would prioritize companies where business information can’t be validated through commercially available data.
The immigration agency also said it was establishing a new email address for people to report allegations of fraud or abuse.
It said it would continue random inspections, too, which has been past practice.
Also Monday, the Justice Department issued a statement cautioning employers participating in the program against discriminating against American workers.
“US workers should not be placed in a disfavored status, and the department is wholeheartedly committed to investigating and vigorously prosecuting these claims,” acting Assistant Attorney General Tom Wheeler of the Civil Rights Division said in a statement.
At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer cast the announcement as a change in policy.
But he also nodded to the fact that the administration hasn’t announced any significant administrative changes or legislative proposals that would change the visa allocation system.
“The White House acknowledges that there are issues with the program as it currently stands,” he said.
“However, there are several laws that are on the books that went unenforced in the previous administration.”