Despite President Donald Trump's frequent and public criticism of the H-1B visa program, new data released shows applicants are undeterred.
The U.S. government has received more than 300,000 H-1B visa petitions and extensions so far this year, according to data released last Wednesday by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, compared with a total of 399,349 in all of 2016. A little more than 58 percent of those were approved, a rate considerably lower than that of 2016, when 87 percent were approved.
This shift comes after USCIS announced in April that it would crack down on H-1B fraud and abuse. The department said it would focus on cases in which companies rely heavily on H-1B employees and employers who petition to have H-1B employees work off-site.
President Trump has been critical of the visas. "The H-1B program is neither high skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay," he said in a March 2016 statement. The president has also criticized the lottery element in awarding the visas.
The H-1B visa program allows highly skilled foreign workers to take on jobs at American companies; its use is most common in the tech industry. H-1B petitioners are generally highly educated, with more than half holding a master's degree or higher. They're also well-paid. Average compensation throughout all H-1B petitions was $92,317 in the first six months of 2017.
The lower approval rate isn't necessarily permanent. Many of this year's petitions are still pending, explained USCIS spokeswoman Katie Tichacek. As a result, "it would be premature for USCIS to speculate on how [this year's] H-1B petitions compare to previous years or how our increased fraud measures will affect the final numbers."
The vast majority of petitions filed this year came from individuals in India, followed by China, Canada, and South Korea.
Last year, 300,902 applications and extensions from India were filed, compared with 247,927 so far this year. If the trend continues, 2017 will outpace 2016 for H-1B inquiries from India. (The data compared fiscal years 2007 to 2016 to only the first half of 2017, which amounts to about three-quarters of a fiscal year.)
There is an annual cap of 65,000 H-1B petitions for the private sector and 20,000 for those in advanced degrees. The higher numbers shown in this data take into account those filing extensions and those exempt from the cap, such as those in nonprofit work, higher education, government research, and some physicians.
The slumping approval rate could be due to changes in required information for the H-1B petition process, explained Sandra Feist, a partner at Grell, Feist PLC and a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "[USCIS] are issuing increasing numbers of requests for additional evidence and increasing the length and type of those requests," she said. "At the beginning of the year, there was this feeling that the laws might change. But the government has taken a more passive-aggressive approach and just made it more difficult to process those H-1Bs."
The suspension of premium processing could also affect how many H-1Bs have been approved so far this year, she said. The suspension has been partially rolled back.
"The approach to H-1B adjudication has definitely shifted since January," she added. "I am definitely seeing a trend for the more punitive, skeptical, and cumbersome."