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International relations

Trump administration announces major H-1B work visa rule changes

A third of applicants would be denied under the new requirements, official says

The U.S. government says it is changing some work visa requirements to protect the American economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- The U.S. government has announced several major changes to the H-1B work visa program used primarily by high-skilled immigrants from India and China, including raising the minimum salary requirement and narrowing the definition of "specialty occupations" eligible for the program.

The length of visas for certain contract workers will also be shortened from three years to one, among other changes.

The rule change, introduced by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labor on Tuesday, is to ensure that hiring H-1B workers does not "worsen the economic crisis caused by COVID-19."

The department estimates that as many as one-third of all H-1B petitions would likely be rejected under the new rule, Ken Cuccinelli, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a news conference.

"We have entered an era in which economic security is an integral part of homeland security. Put simply, economic security is homeland security," Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement. "In response, we must do everything we can within the bounds of the law to make sure the American worker is put first."

The new rules, which take effect in early December, 60 days after they were announced, will likely face strong opposition from Silicon Valley, as the U.S. technology industry relies heavily on highly skilled foreign workers.

In fiscal 2019, Google received decisions on around 10,580 applications for H-1B and similar visas. That compares to Amazon.com Services' 7,705, IBM's 7,237, Microsoft's 6,041, Facebook's 3,212 and Apple's 1,708, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor accessed via Myvisajobs.com.

A group of plaintiffs led by trade associations representing tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon sued the Trump administration after the president barred the issuance of many new work visas including H-1B under a proclamation signed in June.

The order was blocked by a federal court in San Francisco last week as the judge ruled that Trump had overstepped his legal authority by issuing the ban.

TechNet, one of the trade associations filed the lawsuit against the Trump administration said the H-1B rule changes announced today "will only hurt American companies that depend on high-skilled workers who fill critical positions while we work to grow our domestic STEM pipeline." 

"This new rule only harms America's ability to recover from the pandemic during this critical time and has zero impact on increasing domestic American jobs," it said in a statement. 

The rule changes will also "affect people with more generalized degrees who enter professional positions that do not require a specific degree," according to Rebecca Bernhard, an immigration and employment lawyer and partner at international law firm Dorsey & Whitney.

"Although the new regulations do not effect current H-1B visa holders immediately, anyone seeking a new H-1B next year or a renewed/extended H-1B will be subject to the new rule and thus more scrutiny over the type of degree and the employer-employee relationship," Bernhard said.

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