Amid rumors of crackdowns from the Trump administration, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services have temporarily stopped fast-tracking H-1B petitions as of April 3, 2017. Those who submitted after that date will have to wait up to six months for their application to be reviewed. The move comes amid a six to 11-month backlog of non-premium H-1B petitions, which have been neglected in favor of fast-tracked applications.
So what exactly does this mean for foreign highly skilled workers trying to obtain H-1B Visas in the US? USCIS allots 85,000 H-1B visas every year through a lottery system. These documents allow foreign workers the ability to hold highly skilled positions in the US temporarily. Over 236,000 people submitted for the lottery in 2016, and this year, the department assigned all 85,000 visas within five days for the fifth year in a row.
The change will inevitably increase this allocation time. Normally, an applicant could pay $1,225 and fill out a Form I-907 to get their petition processed within 15 calendar days. The new decision does away with these procedures, forcing anyone who applied after April 3 to undergo the full waiting period.
This issue carries a wide range of repercussions for students and foreign workers alike.
Why Was the Change Instated?
Officially, the USCIS has suspended its fast-track program to work through a backlog of old petitions. Premium applications usually take priority over these cases, and many of the latter have sat unprocessed for a long period. The USCIS also maintains a rule that allows workers to extend their term with an employer for 240 days if their application is being processed. Clearing the backlog will help reduce these inefficiencies.
However, immigration experts fear that political factors may have influenced the suspension. CNN reports that an executive order draft detailing changes to the H-1B process was leaked in January, and during his election campaign, President Trump repeatedly criticized tech entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg who advocated for the program. While no legislation or executive orders have been tabled yet, multiple news sources have mentioned the connection in their reporting.
How Long Will the Suspension Last?
USCIS has emphasized that the suspension is a temporary one that it has instated before. It will remain in place for six months at most, which means the fast track processing could be unavailable until October. Yet the long-term policy surrounding H-1B visas remains unclear. Based on Trump’s campaign promises, the possibility of major reform cannot be denied.
Who Is Affected?
The suspension will affect highly skilled foreign professionals who work in the US. Many H-1B recipients work in the technology medical fields, and they must renew their visas on a three-year basis. If they change jobs during this time, they may need to apply again. If their visas expire during this time, the workers will be left stranded, unable to travel.
While the fast-tracking suspension may prove devastating to those who work at large corporations, students and employees at universities or non-profit institutions may also be affected. These professionals are subject to different rules, but they still require H-1B visas to work. As a result, the decision will have wide-ranging consequences for number of foreign workers.
What Comes Next?
The lack of clear timelines is among the most disconcerting elements of the suspension. While the six-month limit is in place, there’s no indication of an exact end date. The scale of this decision is also unprecedented.
USCIS has instituted similar moratoriums in the past, but the current suspension lasts much longer than usual. Whether this extends beyond a mere productivity issue remains to be seen, but the development is troubling nonetheless.