The ripple effects of Trump's H-1B visa reform

A draft of Trump's executive order viewed by Axios directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to consider ways to "make the process of H-1B allocation more efficient and ensure the beneficiaries of the program are the best and the brightest." That could mean replacing the current lottery system with one that prioritizes visas for jobs promising the highest salaries.

The salary range: According to Labor Department data, the largest users of H-1B visas — India-based IT services companies such as Tata Consultancy, Wipro and Infosys — tend to pay visa-holding staff lower salaries. Tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, Intel and Cisco tend to promise higher wages for the foreign engineers they hire with H-1Bs.

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Data: Department of Labor; Chart: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Data caveat: When companies hire workers with an H-1B visa, they have to provide notice, through a government filing, of the H-1B workers' wages and work locations. While the Labor Department filings don't directly correlate with number of visas ultimately awarded to the companies, the data reflects visa demand from companies requesting to fill slots with H-1B-holders.

The backdrop: Tech companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook say the visas are crucial for specialized jobs they can't fill with American workers. India-based companies that staff corporate IT departments file the largest numbers of visa requests, triggering criticism that the visas are used to fill lower-paid, entry-level IT jobs (which Trump and his supporters would prefer to see go to Americans) instead of higher-paying, more senior engineering jobs.

Tensions over U.S. worker displacement escalated with the 2015 layoffs at Disney, where IT workers were let go after bringing in an offshore contracting firm that largely relies on H-1B visas. Trump seized on the incident during the campaign and said he was "totally committed to eliminating rampant, widespread H-1B abuse." This was a defining incident in shaping the thinking of key White House advisors Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.

The draft EO doesn't order immediate changes to the H-1B allocation process. Tech industry insiders expect Trump will direct DHS, which runs the H-1B visa lottery system, to start a rule-making to re-prioritize the visa allocation to give preference to higher-paying firms. This pits tech firms against the Indian IT-staffing firms.

What it means for tech: In theory, prioritizing by salaries means visas for more senior, higher-paying jobs will be granted first, and visas for lower-paying jobs (such as those being filled by Indian IT services firms) would fall to the back of line, perhaps not getting allocated at all if demand for the high-wage job visas is strong.

IEEE, one of the largest groups representing U.S. technical workers, in a memo to Miller proposed giving priority to companies that are not H-1B dependent (meaning less then 15% of their workforce is H-1B holders) and pay the highest salaries.

California House members Darrell Issa, a Republican, and Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat, are pushing bills that would raise salary requirements for H-1B visa holders. Tech companies generally support those efforts to de-prioritize Indian outsourcers that they claim "clog up" the oversubscribed lottery system with bulk applications.

But there's a catch: Wage-based hiring means companies may miss out on mid-level workers they still have trouble filling with qualified Americans. For example, software engineering jobs will be filled quickly, but jobs for network engineers or tech support that tend to skew lower on the pay scale could be tough to fill without H-1B visas. "The demand in the job market is not always captured by the highest salary," said one tech lobbyist. So tech companies are advocating for worker skill-set to be taken into account in addition to salary alone.

The irony: Some of the biggest tech companies also use India-based IT staff to supplement their own corporate IT departments. So they'll also feel the pinch if those jobs are harder to fill with visas.

What it means for India-based IT firms: Since they're more dependent on H-1B workers, so-called outsourcing firms will be hit hard if changes to the lottery system move them to the back of the line or cut them out altogether. Stock prices of leading firms Infosys and Wipro have already taken a blow in anticipation of reforms.

For their part, many India-based firms have ramped up U.S. recruiting to reduce its reliance on offshore visa holders, and they say they comply with visa system rules. Squeezing them too hard could drive the companies to move some U.S.-based jobs to India. "The sector deserves credit for helping U.S. companies succeed while also making substantial local investments and protecting and growing the U.S. workforce," said a lobbyist working with the India-based IT sector.