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Signature Trump policy - H-1B visa reform - looks to be on the back burner

Visa paperwork is due April 1, but Sean Spicer says visa needs 'comprehensive look'

United States president Donald Trump appears to have gone slow on his campaign pledge to reform H-1B visas, the category of working visa that tech firms often use to bring skilled workers to America.

Trump's immigration policy (PDF) called for the minimum wage payable to H-1B visa holders to be raised to a level comparable to prevailing wages in the United States.

Doing so, the policy says, “will force companies to give these coveted entry-level jobs to the existing domestic pool of unemployed native and immigrant workers in the U.S., instead of flying in cheaper workers from overseas.”

“This will improve the number of black, Hispanic and female workers in Silicon Valley who have been passed over in favor of the H-1B program,” the document adds, before going on to call for a requirement that employers hire American workers first, regardless of the availability of H-1B visas.

Last Thursday, NBC reporter Caitlin Baker asked Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer about the administration's progress on H-1B visa reform and, according to the White House's transcript (PDF) of the encounter generated the following response:

“The President's actions that he's taken in terms of his executive order and other revamping of immigration policy have focused on our border security, keeping our country safe, our people safe. And then, obviously, whether it's H-1B visas or the other one -- spousal visas -- other areas of student visas, I think there is a natural desire to have a full look at -- a comprehensive look at that.”

But Spicer offered no timetable for that “comprehensive look”, which is important because the H-1B visa season opens on April 1st, when it becomes possible to lodge applications for visas that will be granted starting on October 1st.

US Citizenship and Immigration services advises that “it is important to plan in advance if you will be filing for an H-1B visa that is subject to the annual H-1B numerical cap.” Applicants and employers are aware of that advice and typically complete their paperwork in advance of the April 1st deadline and then lodge promptly on the day.

With that deadline now 19 days distant and the H-1B program remaining in place, it appears the US will either continue the visa for another year or risk the ire of those individuals and employers who apply.

Spicer's lack of specifics saw the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' US chapter accuse Trump of breaking a campaign promise and costing Americans jobs that re-shaping the H-1B program would have made available to locals. The organisation wants outsourcers to go to the back of the queue for H-1B visas, arguing that their business model is to replace citizens with lower-paid H-1B-holding workers.

The Trump administration has already temporarily suspended fast-track processing for H-1B visas, making it harder to bring in foreign workers in a hurry.

Technology firms argue that H-1B visas help them to find the workers that enable innovation and growth, thereby benefiting the entire United States. The visas are also a diplomatic flashpoint, as as restrictions on them are seen as being aimed at Indian technology companies and therefore at Indians seeking to spend time in the US.

President Trump is mercurial: it's entirely possible he could decide to change H-1B rules with little notification. But his administration also appears to be moving more carefully after its first executive order on immigration was struck down by courts after wide condemnation it was an attempt to exclude people based on their faith rather than a national security initiative. ®

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