A Look at the H-1B Visa Program 

History of the Program

The H-1B visa program, or the H-1B Specialty Occupation visa, is a type of non-immigrant visa. The purpose of the H-1B visa is to allow employers to hire foreign workers temporarily for “speciality occupations”. The term specialty occupation means generally any work that would require a bachelor’s degree or higher, in any relevant field of study.

The H-1B visa was introduced under 1965’s amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act, as part of landmark immigration reforms in the United States. The H-1B program has been modified since then, including an annual cap of 65,000 accepted applicants being implemented through the amendments to the Immigration Act in 1990. In 1998, the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act was implemented, that required companies to give additional attestations on whether American workers would be displaced. In 2004, the H-1B Reform Act would overturn the increased cap that were implemented under the previous two pieces of legislation, returning the cap to its original number of 65,000.

H-1B Program Statistics

Looking at overall non-immigrant visa issuances, Indian citizens were third in the fiscal year 2016, with a total of 977,875 visas being issued. Chinese citizens with 2,264,412 issued visas and Mexican citizens with 1,400,179 visas issued were the only citizens who had more non-immigrant visa applications accepted.

When it comes to the issuance of H-1B visas, Indian citizens by far see more H-1B visas approved compared to citizens of other countries. For the fiscal year 2014, Indian citizens made up 69.7% (220,286 visas) of all H-1B visas issued, with Chinese citizens following with just 8.4% (26,393 visas) of all H1-B visas issued. For the fiscal year 2015, Indian citizens made up 70.9% (195,247) of the total H-1B visas issued, with Chinese citizens once again following with 9.7% (26,669) visas issued.

When it comes to companies, for fiscal year 2015, five out of the top 10 companies who received H-1B visas were Indian. In contrast, three out of the top 10 companies who received certified H-1B visas for their employees in the fiscal year 2016 were Indian. The companies were Wipro, Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services according to Office of Foreign Labor Certification. For fiscal year 2017 so far, Infosys remains in the top 10 with Mphasis also appearing in the top 10 when it comes to India companies. For all years however, Deloitte Consulting and Cognizant Technology Solutions, British and American companies respectively, received more H-1B visas than Indian firms. Cisco (American), Capgemini (French) and PWC (British) are other firms that have featured in the top 10 over the past three years.

Why Reforms Have Been Called For

President Donald Trump, during the 2016 election campaign trail, declared his intentions to carry out H-1B reforms. During the campaign trail, President Trump said of the H-1B visa program that “The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay.”

Since the beginning of 2017, several Congressional Representatives, from both the Republican and Democratic parties have proposed legislation reforming the H-1B program. For instance, a couple of proposed legislations have been Representative Zoe Lofgren’s (D-CA) and Representative Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) legislation that both raise the minimum annual salary requirements for H-1B applicants to be $132,000 and $100,000 respectively.

The new Trump administration has also pushed forward changes to the H-1B process as well. The administration has already moved to suspend a system that allowed for expedited visa processing for workers who paid extra. Earlier this month, the Trump administration also moved to introduce guidelines that now require workers applying for computer programming jobs to prove that their jobs are complex technically and require expertise, during the visa application process. Additionally, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services have also announced that they will be inspecting workplaces with a high number of H-1B visa employees.

View from India and its Diaspora

Meanwhile, the changes, both undertaken and proposed, have raised concerns in India and within Indian companies as well. For instance, R Chandrashekhar, President of Nasscom has commented that Indian workers fill up a shortage of employers in the respective fields. D.D. Mishra, of technology consultancy Gartner, says that the reforms will raise costs for Indian companies. Similarly, Indian officials who have been in contact with the Trump administration, have argued that H-1B visas help improve the competitiveness of America’s economy and that this competitiveness will be important for the continued growth of the American economy.

At the same time, their remarks on making the H-1B visa process merit based are more positive. This is also an opinion that has been reflected among Indian tech workers already in the United States as well. They argue that the current lottery system is of no help either side, and that a merit based approach would be beneficial to both sides, even if it meant a reduction in immigration numbers.