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Trump administration to sharply limit skilled-worker visas

 Ken Cuccinelli, Department of Homeland Security acting deputy secretary
Homeland Security Acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, shown in September, said Tuesday that about one-third of the people who have applied for H1-B visas in recent years would be denied under the new rules.
(Joshua Roberts / Pool via AP)

The Trump administration announced plans Tuesday to sharply limit visas for skilled workers, a move officials said was a priority amid job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move comes days after a U.S. district judge sided with businesses that argued President Trump had exceeded his authority in placing a current limit on the visas.

Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labor officials said Tuesday that new rules for what’s known as the H1-B program will restrict who can obtain a work visa and will impose additional salary requirements on companies seeking to hire foreign workers.

Acting Deputy DHS Secretary Ken Cuccinelli said about one-third of the people who have applied for H1-B visas in recent years would be denied under the new rules, which also will limit the number of specialty occupations available under the program.

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President Trump issued an order in June temporarily suspending the H-1B program until the end of the year.

The new rules reflect a broader effort by his administration to curb both legal and illegal immigration, an issue important to Trump’s base, even if it’s less prominent in his campaign this year than in 2016.

A new requirement that employers pay higher prevailing wages to foreign workers will take effect in the coming days, reflecting the need to help the job market recover from the coronavirus shutdown, Deputy Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella said. “Immediate action is needed,” he said.

The H-1B program was created under President George H.W. Bush to help companies fill specialized jobs as the tech sector began to boom, and it was harder to find qualified workers. Many companies say they still need the program to fill key positions.

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Critics of the program include labor advocates as well as people who seek limits on legal immigration.

Supporters argue that H-1B holders fill crucial needs and don’t necessarily take jobs from Americans, but rather help expand the economy and create more opportunity.

Increasing the required wages will especially hurt start-ups and smaller enterprises that may be unable to meet the increased requirements, said Cornell University Law School professor Steve Yale-Loehr, an expert in immigration law. “Companies may decide to offshore jobs overseas, hurting U.S. workers,” Yale-Loehr said.

Cuccinelli and Pizzella said the program has been abused to allow companies to displace American workers with less expensive employees from overseas.

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“U.S. workers are being ousted from good paying, middle-class jobs and replaced with non-U.S. workers,” Pizzella said. “It has also caused U.S. wages in some instances to stagnate. That is wrong.”

Among the new rules are significant limits on “offsite” firms that bring in large numbers of H-1B visa holders and then provide those workers under contract to other companies for a fee, a loophole that has been the subject of fraud and other abuse.

There would also be increased workplace inspections and additional oversight of the H-1B program, Cuccinelli said.

The U.S. can issue up to 85,000 H-1B visas per year in technology, life sciences, healthcare and other sectors. They are typically issued for an initial period of three years and can be renewed. People from India and China make up the majority of the estimated 500,000 H-1B visa holders in the U.S.

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Officials said the Labor Department rules would take effect immediately after publication in the federal register this week, while those that fall under the Department of Homeland Security would be adopted after a public comment period.


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