Here’s What You Need to Know about the H-1B Visa Changes

Some, but not all, of the proposed H-1B visa changes will take effect April 1.
By: | February 4, 2019 • 2 min read

After a public-comment period that was extended multiple times, the federal government recently finalized changes to the visa-selection process for those seeking to work in the U.S. in highly specialized jobs. The much-anticipated H-1B visa regulations are expected to increase the number of visa holders with advanced degrees.

In the past, an initial lottery to fill 20,000 visa slots was first opened to applicants with at least a master’s degree from a U.S. institution. Then, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services opened a second lottery for the remaining 65,000 openings. Starting April 1, that order will be flipped—meaning more applicants with advanced degrees will be filtered into the general pool, followed by a second lottery for advanced-degree holders.

According to USCIS, the move will mean about 5,340 more immigrants with advanced degrees (an increase of about 16 percent) will be among this year’s H-1B visa holders.

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The shift is expected to cut down on the number of large foreign staffing companies, particularly those in the tech sector, funneling high numbers of applicants into entry-level jobs—but also raises questions about the viability of reducing opportunities for high-skilled workers with bachelor’s degrees or other qualifications. Research has shown that high-skilled workers from abroad can be a boon for an organization’s profitability.

Along with this change, the regulations will also include a new electronic pre-registration step before applicants can file their actual petition. Going forward, employers will only have to file full applications for their petitioners who are actually selected through the lottery—however, that portion of the rule won’t be incorporated into the fiscal year 2020 process, opening April 1.

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A press statement from USCIS noted that the new electronic-registration component was delayed “after considering public feedback.” The public-comment period on the proposed rules was extended several times, finally closing at the end of January—prompting outcry about a perceived rush to open the pre-registration process in enough time for this year’s application period.

While officials haven’t yet announced if this requirement will be ready for the 2021 application period, USCIS will give at least 30 days’ notice before the pre-registration period launches each year, a stipulation that wasn’t included in the original proposed rule. When the new registration system is ultimately launched, USCIS said, the agency expects it will “lower overall costs for employers and increase government efficiency.” USCIS will “conduct outreach” to ensure petitioners know how to access and use the new registration system, the agency said.

“These simple and smart changes are a positive benefit for employers, the foreign workers they seek to employ and the agency’s adjudicators, helping the H-1B visa program work better,” said USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna. Department of Homeland Security estimated the registration rule could save employers and the federal government up to $63 million annually.

Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]