Sep 12, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Big Tech's fight for high-skilled visa holders

Data: National Foundation for American Policy and USCIS; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

The technology industry has long advocated for access and expansion of H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers and has been vocal about its disdain for President Trump's moves to curb them.

The big picture: Denial rates for H-1B visas for tech companies have gone up significantly during Trump's first term, according to government data compiled by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP).

Between the lines: It's harder than ever for tech companies to recruit and retain foreign professionals seeking to work in the U.S. — even as the pandemic fuels further demand for high-skilled technical labor and more of people's personal and professional lives move online.

By the numbers: The annual cap for H-1Bs is 85,000, a number tech companies were trying to increase long before the Trump administration's restrictive policies. In fiscal year 2019, 190,098 applications were filed.

  • Denial rates for new H-1B petitions for initial employment rose to 29% through the second quarter of fiscal year 2020 from 6% in fiscal year 2015, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services compiled by NFAP.

The Trump administration is now looking to further tighten restrictions on H-1B visas.

  • It has been pushing a change to the definition of a "specialty occupation," and on Sept. 4 sent a proposed new rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget. The rule is partly meant to "better protect U.S. workers and wages" while requiring employers to pay "appropriate" wages to H-1B visa holders.

What they're saying: "America’s continued success depends on companies having access to the best talent from around the world. Particularly now, we need that talent to help contribute to America’s economic recovery," Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda told Axios.

  • "Highly skilled visa holders play a critical role in driving innovation — at Facebook and at organizations across the country — and that’s something we should encourage, not restrict," a Facebook spokesperson told Axios.

The other side: Opponents of boosting the visa program argue that companies use the visas to hire cheaper labor rather than pay American workers more. Those opponents include the group U.S. Tech Workers, which met with Trump in August.

Flashback: In June, big tech companies signed onto an amicus brief arguing for a preliminary injunction against the Trump administration's moves to suspend a number of foreign visas, include H-1Bs.

  • The brief cites executives from Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google and PayPal arguing the administration's policies would hurt American innovation, slow progress and cut the U.S. off from key talent.
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