The face of U.S. immigration law is changing, drastically and rapidly. While much of the attention has focused on migrants crossing the country’s southern borders, other aspects of immigration law are being transformed as well. The Department of Homeland Security recently announced its intention to revise the definition of specialty occupation under the H-1B visa program. The H-1B visa allows employers to hire foreign workers with technical or theoretical expertise in a range of specialized fields, including information technology, finance, engineering, and medicine, as well as others. Currently, to qualify as a specialty occupation, the occupation must require at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent, and the degree must be a standard requirement for the job or the job must be complex enough that only a person with a degree can perform it. Further, the employer must ordinarily require a degree for the position and the nature of the job must be associated with a degree. The government currently allows 65,000 new H-1B visas each year for foreign workers in specialty occupations. The visa allows a worker to remain in the United States for three years, although it can be renewed for an additional three-year period.
The announcement of the proposed rule does not specify how the definition will be changed, only that the new definition will “increase focus on obtaining the best and brightest foreign nationals.” The proposed revision is causing consternation because the change was announced as part of a Unified Fall Agenda that also incorporates changes to the H-4 visa program. This change would alter the employment eligibility of spouses of H-1B visa holders, even revoking work permits in some cases. The stated goal of this change is to increase employment opportunities for American workers.
While it is unclear if the proposed changes would actually improve employment opportunities for Americans, it would almost certainly have a disproportionate impact on Indians working in the United States. Currently, almost three of every four H-1B visa holders are Indian citizens. A 2018 report by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) found that 309,986 of the 419,637 foreign nationals working in the United States on H-1B visas were from India. Because of the sheer number of Indian visa-holders, any changes to the H-1B program could affect the U.S.’s relationship with India and alter the U.S. labor pool.