President Trump may next challenge the tech industry on the hot-button issue of H-1B visas

Bill Gates AP

Much of the tech industry is openly opposing President Trump’s Friday night order to bar refugees from entering the country for 90 days as well as banning entry to people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. But an even bigger battle with the tech industry is about to begin if Trump issues an executive order that changes how they can recruit overseas workers.

Trump’s administration has drafted an executive order that attempts to alter the work-visa programs used by many tech companies, telling them that if they recruit foreign workers, priority will be assigned to those workers who will be the mostly highly paid, Bloomberg reports.

Businesses would have to try to hire American first, and if they recruit foreign workers, priority would then be given to the most highly paid, reports Bloomberg’s Peter Elstrom and Saritha Rai, who have seen a copy of the draft.

The draft order covers all of the visas that temporarily bring overseas workers to the US, including H-1B, L-1, E-2 and B1. However it will be one particular type, H-1B visas, that could get the tech industry’s blood boiling.

H-1B visas allow companies to recruit internationally for employees with specialty skills when they cannot find people with those skills locally. These visas are limited to 65,000 a year, plus another 20,000 for those with advanced degrees. Those visas are usually snapped up instantly at the start of every year. The tech industry has, for years, been lobbying Congress to increase access to such visas, citing a skills shortage in the US for high in demand jobs. (Bill Gates famously testified to Congress back in 2008 about it.) 

Just about all tech companies use these visas to hire talent from a global talent pool and bring these people to the US to work. Companies like IBM, Microsoft, Google, Intel, Amazon, Apple, Oracle are among the top 25 users of H1-B visas, each hire 1,000 or more people a year that way, according to MyVisaJobs, a site that tracks H-1B usage.

But there have been ongoing accusations that some companies are not using the visas because they cannot find local talent, and are instead using them to hire overseas workers and pay them lower salaries than they would have to pay a US citizen. The biggest users of H-1B visas are Indian outsourcing companies Infosys, Tata and Wipro. The average salary for a Tata or WiPro worker on such a visa is under $70,000 a year. In comparison, the average salary of an H-1B visa holder hired by Amazon is over $113,000, according to MyVisaJobs.

And there have been accusations that visa holders are trapped by their companies and jobs. If they should lose their jobs, they face deportation unless they can get another company to quickly hire them and sponsor their visa.

The trade group for India’s IT sector tells Bloomberg that there been no evidence of wrongdoing by Indian IT companies over visa use.

Given how long the IT industry has been asking the government to overhaul the visa system to make it easier to recruit internationally, should Trump sign an order that would make that process more difficult, the IT industry will almost certainly push back.

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