Just in time for Christmas, the U.S. government has a gift for employers of highly skilled foreign workers: a brand-new H-1B visa application process.

Unveiled on December 3 by the Department of Homeland Security, the proposed new rule would require employers to register candidates online for H-1B visas a full two weeks before the traditional application deadline of April 1. Only those whose online submissions are accepted will be allowed to submit a full application. The new process would also flip the order in which petitions are reviewed and allocated, which would favor candidates with a master's degree or higher.

The new application process, which is just the latest in a series of policy changes impacting the H-1B visa, is aimed at reducing the overall costs for businesses that employ H-1B workers, as registering online is free. Filing fees, alone, can run upwards of $2,400. It's also supposed to cut down the administrative burden of processing hundreds of thousands of applications for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"DHS and this administration are intensely focused on reforming employment visa programs so they benefit Americans to the greatest extent possible," USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said in an emailed statement. The agency declined to state when the new rule will be finalized. "These proposed regulatory changes would help ensure more of the best and brightest workers from around the world come to America under the H-1B program."

Here's how the new process works: Employers would first file an online form during a registration period that would start no later than March and end at least two weeks before April 1. Provided USCIS receives enough registrations, it will randomly select the necessary number of applications to meet the 85,000-visa cap, and give 60 days to the selected employers to submit a full H-1B application.

From these, USCIS would first process applications until it reaches the 65,000 regular visa cap, discard all that don't meet the master's degree requirement, and then process applications for the remaining 20,000 visas. With this, USCIS estimates 16 percent more foreigners with a master's degree or higher would get an H-1B visa.

Naturally, not everyone is happy with the proposed rule changes, which are open for public comment until January 2, 2019.

"Certainly easing the burden by going electronic is a commendable goal; however, I think it is rushed," says Ashima Duggal, an immigration lawyer based in San Francisco. "USCIS just released this in December, just four months before the next year's H-1B petitions are accepted. To reform and offer a new system that is not in place, that's not working, that we know nothing about--it's rushed, and it produces a lot of unease, uncertainty, confusion, and worry in the immigration community, including U.S. employers."

It was also announced right in the middle of the holiday season, adds Duggal, with only a 30-day period for public comments, half of the usual amount.

To be sure, this isn't the first time USCIS has tried to reform the H-1B process. In 2011, the agency proposed the exact same online registration process, but it never finalized the rule. And in September, it suspended premium processing for H-1B visas until February 19, 2019.

Published on: Dec 17, 2018