Trump administration issues new H1-B visa guidelines

The new guidelines, setting higher standards for those seeking "computer related" visas, were issued right before the 2018 lottery opened.

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The new guidelines, which were quietly issued, may come as an abrupt surprise to many foreign and domestic companies.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a memo late last week, setting higher standards for which "computer related positions" will be eligible for the H1-B visa program.

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The new guidelines, quietly issued Friday, may come as an abrupt surprise to the many foreign and domestic companies ready to enter the lottery for 2018 H1-B visas, which opened Monday. Just two weeks earlier, the USCIS said it would keep the number of H1-B visas doled out each year unchanged, capped at 85,000.

The H1-B visa program is designed to temporarily bring workers in specialty occupations to the US, and the USCIS has relied on a memo from 2000 for guidance on issuing "computer related" H1-B visas.

However, the memo issued Friday rescinds that previous memo, calling it "now somewhat obsolete." The old guidance, it continued, "does not properly explain or distinguish an entry-level position from one that is, for example, more senior, complex, specialized, or unique."

The new memo continues, "[T]he fact that a person may be employed as a computer programmer and may use information technology skills and knowledge to help an enterprise achieve its goals in the course of his or her job is not sufficient to establish the position as a specialty occupation."

Now, petitioners seeking to sponsor a computer programmer H1-B visa may no longer solely rely on the 16-year-old occupational handbook that informed the previous memo, it says. "Instead, a petitioner must provide other evidence to establish that the particular position is one in a specialty occupation."

The changes could be significantly disruptive for Indian outsourcing firms like TCS, Infosys, and Wipro, which currently get more than half of the allotted H1-B visas. As ZDNet's Rajiv Rao explained, these companies recruit foreign engineers to send to the US for temporary projects. Since the limited number of visas are distributed via a lottery, these firms play the odds and apply for H1-B visas in bulk -- often to the detriment of small firms that can't afford to do so.

There are currently multiple bills before Congress aimed at reforming the H-1B visa program, with politicians complaining it is costing American tech workers their jobs. Meanwhile, many have expected the Trump administration to unilaterally overhaul the program. While it kept the current quota of 85,000 in place, the administration did recently suspend "premium processing" of H-1B visas.

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