H1B visas under scrutiny as Team Trump vows crack down on misuse


Washington/New Delhi: Putting the heat on countries like India that corner substantial numbers of H1B and L1 work visas issued to IT professionals, senator Jeff Sessions, US president-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for the post of attorney general, overnight, on Thursday said the new administration would push for legislative measures to curb the misuse of the two categories of visas.

The comments come as Trump, in his first news conference as president-elect on Wednesday, promised a major punitive border tax on products manufactured by US companies shifting jobs outside the US, underlining that job creation at home would be one of his priorities.

Previously, the US president-elect had listed immigration reform among five executive actions he plans to take on his first day in office. They include asking the Department of Labor to investigate “all abuses of the visa programmes that undercut the American worker”.

Also read: The challenges to free movement of labour

In his confirmation hearing, Sessions said: “It’s simply wrong to think that we’re in a totally open world and that any American with a job can be replaced if somebody in the world is willing to take a job for less pay.”

“We have borders. We have a commitment to our citizens and you have been a champion of that. I’ve been honoured to work with you on it,” Sessions said in response to a question from senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Under the H1B visa programme, US-based companies hire highly skilled foreign workers, up to a maximum of 85,000 a year—65,000 hired abroad and 20,000 from among foreign nationals studying in the US.

The H1B visas are used by companies hiring Indian techies while the L1 is used for intra-company transfers.

The multibillion-dollar Indian IT industry’s exports are worth $108 billion, 60% of which goes to the US market.

Also read: Trump effect? Bill targeting H1B visas reintroduced in US Congress

In New Delhi, Shivendra Singh, vice-president in charge of global trade development at the National Association of Software and Services Companies or Nasscom, said the trade body would work to dispel the perception that Indian IT professionals were eating into the US jobs market.

“The top seven Indian companies account for just 13% of the H1B and L1 visas issued every year,” he said, adding that the rest are used by major US companies who hire Indian IT professionals.

“The fact is that the Indian IT sector is a net jobs creator in the US,” Singh said.

“We support more than 400,000 jobs in the US, we contribute $20 billion as taxes to the US economy and we play a role in making America more competitive,” he said.

Singh also cited the US Labor Department figures to buttress the argument that a shortage of skilled workers within the US labour pool was what was causing Indian as well as US companies to hire Indian IT professionals.

According to Singh, the US Labor Department had itself predicted a shortage of 2.4 million STEM or science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates till 2018.

“We want to hire locally but there is a shortage of skilled labour. This is why US companies are also hiring Indian workers,” he said.

“If the H1B and LI visas are given on the basis of skill, then we are fine with that,” he said. “We are also supportive of US efforts to create more jobs,” he said.

With the US and India looking to boost trade from the current $100 billion to $500 billion (set by India and the US during a visit to New Delhi in 2013 by the outgoing US vice-president Joe Biden), Singh said the IT industry was seen as one of the key drivers of this.

The Indian IT industry has in the past too been a target of US politicians who blame it for taking away jobs.

In 2015, during US president Barack Obama’s second term in office, India had protested the increase in H1B and L1 visa fees from $2000 and $2,500 respectively to $4000 and $4500 respectively. The steep hikes were justified by the US administration to finance more security posts on the US-Mexico border and for the creation of a special fund for the victims of the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001.

Sessions’s comments on the H1B and L1 visas come as two Republican lawmakers from California on 5 January re-introduced a bill in the US Congress that backs key changes in the H1B programme, news reports said.

Among other things, the bill aims to increase the minimum salary of H1B visa to $100,000 per annum from the current levels of $60,000 per annum.