04/04/2017 8:53 AM IST | Updated 04/04/2017 4:16 PM IST

All You Need To Know About The New H-1B Rules That Spell Doom For Indian Computer Programmers

Beginning of the end?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

As anticipated, Donald Trump's crackdown on H-1B work visas has begun, and its first target is computer programmers, in what is likely to be a major upset for Indian IT companies.

Several important updates were announced by US immigration authorities on the first day the US began accepting applications for new H-1B visas, a type of temporary work visas that are widely used for recruiting IT workers. Here's what you need to know:

What are the main changes?

- The US will no longer consider all computer programming jobs as eligible occupations for H-1B work visas. The H-1B visas are usually granted only for work in certain select occupations that are deemed "specialty occupations" by the US immigration authorities, after an application is filed by a sponsoring US employer. In 2014, about 65 per cent of all H-1B visas were allotted to computer-related jobs, according to US government data.

- Under the new rules, entry-level programming jobs will see severe restrictions and may not qualify for the visas.

- In addition, it has also tightened minimum educational requirements in the field of computer programming such as disqualifying diploma-level degrees.

- US authorities also plan to conduct surprise checks on employers who recruit foreign nationals on H-1B visas to investigate possible incidents of abuse. These will include employers who have a high ratio of H-1B workers or those who employ workers at another company or organisation's location. This provision is likely to hit Indian IT companies who deploy workers at client sites.

- The lottery system for H-1B remains appears to be unchanged. The US uses a lottery system to allot these visas if applications exceed the annual cap of 65,000 for these visas.

Are there going to be more changes?

While the most recent statement doesn't indicate that more changes to H-1B are forthcoming, it is likely the US will introduce further restrictions. However, the timing on those changes is unclear.

At least a dozen bills have been tabled in the US Senate and House from both Democrats and Republicans that seek severe restrictions. One such bill proposes to double the minimum salary required to apply for the H-1B visa to $130,000 from the current $60,000, and remove the "master's degree exemption" from the annual cap for these visas. Under the current laws, petitioners with a US master's degree are exempt from the annual cap.

Why is the US taking these harsh measures?

According to a statement by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is part of the US Department of Homeland Security, these changes are being introduced in part to check possible "fraud and abuse" of H-1B work visas.

"...Too many American workers who are as qualified, willing and deserving to work in these fields have been ignored or unfairly disadvantaged. Protecting American workers by combating fraud in our employment-based immigration programs is a priority for the USCIS," the statement said.

What are H-1B visas and what does it mean for tech companies?

H-1B visas are a class of non-immigrant visas that allow US companies to hire highly skilled foreign workers in specialty occupations where it is difficult to find qualified workers in the US. Critics of the H1B visa program say it has been abused by employers to disadvantage American workers by hiring foreign nationals on lower salaries.

The current H-1B visa program has an annual limit of 65,000 visas each fiscal year, and the first 20,000 visas for U.S. master's degree holders are exempt from that cap. These visas fill up pretty quickly and if the applications exceed the cap, a lottery system is used to allot them further.

Many Indian technology companies such as TCS, Wipro and Infosys that rely on these visas to deploy Indian tech workers with the company's client sites in the U.S. could be hit by the move. According to estimates, the Indian IT industry has at least 350,000 workers deployed on US shores on these visas, ET reported earlier. It is estimated that over 60 percent of the Infosys' American employees, for instance, are H-1B holders, according to media reports.

In addition to Indian IT companies, several Silicon Valley companies also use these visas to employ skilled workers from overseas

What are 'specialty occupations' and who qualifies for them?

The US immigration defines these occupations as ones that require highly specialized knowledge or skills, obtained by a bachelor's degree or higher, or their equivalent as a minimum criterion for these visas. These include such fields as architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, social sciences and the arts, among others.

Following the news of US working on H1B reforms, several leaders from the Indian IT industry had met with US officials to express concern about the potential changes. It's unclear how far those negotiations went, and whether there will be any silver lining for Indian tech workers from the current policy changes.

With agency inputs