Trump's plans to throttle the H-1B and OPT could upend the supply of US tech talent

These sweeping changes, if implemented, could change the face of US technology.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

If you are a computer programmer or the spouse of an H1-B worker in the US with a work authorisation card called the H-4 EAD or an international graduate STEM student looking to get a technology job after graduation, be prepared for even more radical changes to your future employment prospects in the United States. 

The Trump administration, according to Stuart Anderson in Forbes, is jockeying to push through the coup de grace to the ongoing onslaught against workers that enter the US under these categories.

As the Forbes article lays out in detail after analysing the Department of Homeland Security's Agency Rule List for the Fall of 2019, sweeping changes are on the way. One of the big targets is the H1-B, a category of visas that US companies and Indian IT services outfits have been accused of gaming to their advantage, thereby displacing American programmers. While the number of H-1B rejections have soared to unprecedented levels -- from 6% to 24% -- a new approach that details eliminating computer programming as a specialty occupation may well be the final nail in the coffin of the H1-B program.

The abstract of a forthcoming H-1B rule states:

The Department of Homeland Security will propose to revise the definition of specialty occupation to increase focus on obtaining the best and the brightest foreign nationals via the H-1B program, and revise the definition of employment and employer-employee relationship to better protect U.S. workers and wages. In addition, DHS will propose additional requirements designed to ensure employers pay appropriate wages to H-1B visa holders.

There may be some justice in these high denials because of the dodgy operations of Indian body shops in the past. Yet, it remains to be seen whether it damages the prospects of those who are not your average coders, but who in fact do have specialty skills in robotics or AI that pretty much every US company desperately needs and is in short supply of in the US. 

There is also a plan to do away with the H-4 visa that will prevent spouses of H-1Bs from working and retroactively stop 80,000 people from doing so. Those in favour of deep-sixing say that those jobs should be going to Americans. Defenders of the programme say that these spouses make much needed contributions to the American economy, and many or most are not even in tech.    

Either way, its elimination, while causing heartbreak to a large group of people pales in comparison to the impact on perhaps the most significant group of people who have impacted the US economy in the last several decades: tech entrepreneurs. 

See also: The 10 most popular tech jobs in the US (TechRepublic)

The Trump administration is planning significant reduction or elimination of the Optional Practical Training (OPT) from a maximum of three years for STEM students, and one for others. OPT is one of the big reasons foreign graduates spend significant amounts of money to come to the United States for their studies but it is also a huge reason that graduate engineering programmes churn out some of the best brains in advanced fields for US industry. 

The Trump administration had set a target date of August 2020 for the rule change but is possibly quite happy to wait and see how a lawsuit filed against the OPT program by the the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a labor union, goes. If the court rules in favour of limiting or eliminating the OPT entirely it would have done the job of the administration. 

US colleges are unsurprisingly appalled at this turn of events. NAFSA -- the Association of International Educators -- says that foreign students bring in $40 billion into the US economy and support 450,000 domestic jobs who will now simply depart to other international student-friendly destinations such as Canada, Australia, and the UK, and they will be chased by employers who will go where the labour market is. For University departments in science and engineering that do not attract enough domestic students and have an overwhelmingly large number of foreign ones who go on to become prized hires across American tech companies, this could be catastrophic. 

Rachel Banks, the director of public policy for NAFSA points to all the countries that the US competes with having robust post-graduate work programmes. She brings up the UK as an example of a country that was forced to re-instate its program after having seen international student enrolment drop drastically. 

"It's viewed as an integral component to being attractive to international students to come and study. It's almost expected," Banks said. 

Read more: H-1B visa lottery changes benefit those with advance degrees, and tech companies (TechRepublic)

In the US, it has already dropped, by as much as 10%. It is bound to plummet from there. However, John Miano, a lawyer for WashTech and counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute counters this position by pointing out that these institutions "no longer provide sufficient value to cover tuition. College tuition has been rising out of control for decades, and so they've had to turn to foreign students to subsidize it, and now even foreign students are saying it ain't worth it."

Regardless of Miano's view -- and he does have a good point there when you consider tuition for an average liberal arts education can be north of a hard-to-believe $55,000 a year -- the fact is eliminating OPT or slashing it will have a devastating impact on US industry. 

For instance, almost half of all Fortune 500 companies were started by first generation immigrants or their children. 55% of billion dollar startups were started by immigrants. In the tech firmament alone, companies like Google, eBay, and Sun Microsystems are a handful among thousands of small, medium, and large firms founded by immigrants and employing hundreds of thousands of Americans who used the OPT as a springboard towards other goals.

To recap, I'm not sure where the next flood of American startups or pioneering researchers in companies will come from without a steady stream of immigrants in grad school tech departments. I think Trump and his colleagues do in fact know this well. My hunch is that if there is any cutting to do, the OPT will be treated kindly with a maximum of a year's cut, if that -- remember, it was once just one year until it was extended by two more years for STEM candidates. But the H-1B will be toast.

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