Now that Donald Trump is President-elect of the United States, many in the tech community are wondering what changes (if any) will come to the H-1B program.
For those not in the know, H-1B visas allow American firms to hire workers from other countries, provided those workers are paid the same salary that a U.S.-based hire would have earned. The program is a lottery system, and there is a hard cap on the number of workers that companies can hire every year.
Executives who rely on the H-1B program claim it allows them to hire workers with specialized skillsets they wouldn’t have been able to find otherwise. Critics complain that the system allows companies to overlook perfectly capable American workers in favor of foreign ones who cost less.
Tech companies have periodically lobbied Congress to raise the H-1B cap. Various legislators have spent years attempting to close what they claim are loopholes that allow companies to hire cheaper labor without first attempting to recruit within the U.S. While that back-and-forth between program supporters and detractors has gone on for quite some time, the issue came to the forefront during this year’s Presidential campaign, when both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton commented on it.
Specifically, Clinton expressed support for workers who found themselves replaced by foreign workers as a “cost-cutting measure.” That expression of sympathy aside, her platform made no mention of reforming the H-1B system, although it did feature a subsection about streamlining the visa process for STEM graduates.
Trump, on the other hand, took a much more aggressive stance on H-1Bs. “I know the H-1B very well,” he said during a Republican debate earlier this year. “We shouldn’t have it, it’s very, very bad for workers. It’s unfair to our workers and we should end it.”
But campaigning isn’t governing, and now Trump faces a series of stark choices (they don’t call the U.S. Presidency the hardest job in the world for nothing). Actually ending the H-1B program will likely spark an enormous backlash from the tech industry. If he does nothing to reform the country’s visa system, however, he risks alienating some of his core supporters.
Trump’s nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is a longtime critic of the H-1B system in its current form. “We shouldn’t be bringing in people where we’ve got workers,” Sessions told an audience during a campaign event earlier this year, according to The Des Moines Register. “There are a number of ways to fix it.”
Sessions wants to restrict the number and types of companies that can use the H-1B programs. Last year, he also proposed replacing the existing lottery system with one that doled out H-1Bs for only high-paying jobs—a move that, in theory, would eliminate any company’s reliance on the visa as a way to secure cheap contractors.
If confirmed as Attorney General, Sessions would possibly investigate companies’ H-1B use; he previously petitioned Eric Holder, the former Attorney General under President Obama, to do that very thing.
The ultimate decisions about the country’s visa program rest with Trump. If he follows Sessions’ advice, we could see the H-1B program tighten up in coming years, provided that Congress also follows his lead. But at this point, it remains uncertain what exactly the President-elect will do.