Just months short of the normal starting date for the annual H-1B petition process, USCIS has proposed major changes. U.S. employers who rely on this visa category, which is for jobs that require a bachelor’s or higher degree in a “specific specialty” or equivalent at the entry-level, are now in limbo, unsure whether these changes will be implemented before the normal petition-submission date.
Just last week, USCIS issued a proposal to change the current system for H-1B “cap-subject” petitions. The proposal has two components: requiring employers to register online in advance to be eligible to submit an H-1B petition and reversing the order in which petitions are selected.
Currently, USCIS selects petitions for the 20,000 “master’s exemption” first (for workers with a master’s or higher degree from U.S. colleges or universities that meet certain requirements). Any of these not selected are included when USCIS selects petitions for the 65,000 “cap.” (Selection is only the first step: USCIS has to accept a selected petition for filing, and then decide whether to approve.)
USCIS has provided a 30-day comment period, ending January 2, 2019. It appears that USCIS wants to proceed with the change in the selection process for April 2019, even if—as is likely—the registration system is not ready.
As proposed, USCIS would provide at least 30 days’ advance notice, through its website, of the registration start date. The registration period would run for at least 14 days, beginning at least 14 days before the first business day in April on which H-1B petitions could be filed.
When registering, the employer would have to identify the foreign national it intends to hire. As a result, the employer would have less time to consider hiring foreign nationals who need an H-1B classification.
When the initial registration period ends, if USCIS has more registrations than required for visa number allocation, the agency will hold a “lottery,” but keep the unselected registrations “on reserve” for that fiscal year. If there are less registrations than needed, then USCIS will open another registration period.
For any registrations selected, USCIS will notify employers and provide at least 60 days within which to file. USCIS anticipates that it will stagger the filings to help the agency manage its workflow.
The proposal increases uncertainty because employers will need to proceed as if they will be required to register but also will need to prepare their H-1B petitions since registration is unlikely—and they will not know if their petitions are less likely to be selected than before if the petition does not fall within the “master’s exemption.”
The registration process also injects even greater uncertainty than currently exists as to when USCIS may make a decision on a petition—because USCIS will control how long the registration period lasts and the time period during which a selected registrant may file an H-1B petition.
USCIS describes the proposal as a “merit-based” rule in support of President Trump’s Buy American and Hire American Executive Order to “suggest reforms to help ensure that H-1B visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid petition beneficiaries.” Since current law does not have a “most-skilled” or “highest-paid” hierarchy for H-1B eligibility, it is questionable whether USCIS could accomplish this through regulation. But even apart from its legality, it remains to be seen whether the proposal would favor those with master’s degrees from U.S. schools that meet the “master’s exemption” requirements.
USCIS assumes that “master’s exemption” petitions would be for jobs requiring more skills and at a higher salary. But the “master’s exemption” is determined by the degree the beneficiary holds.
The job offered to the beneficiary may or may not require a master’s degree. Also, the salary an employer offers depends on several factors, such as the type of job, the geographic location, and whether prior work experience is required.
With these variables, there are many situations in which a job requiring a bachelor’s degree and work experience would be the “most-skilled” and “highest paid.”
Also, what makes a U.S. master’s degree from a low-ranking U.S. university more meritorious than, say, a Ph.D. from Oxford.
It also is possible that the proposed new selection order will harm a particular industry, or a particular region, which could reduce the income and opportunities for U.S. workers.
The agency acknowledges that it “has not been able to determine how this may impact particular industries currently submitting H-1B cap petitions for individuals without master’s degrees … and how this may impact particular types of workers” and “welcomes input.” Comments should be submitted to furnish the critical data that USCIS lacks.