The government is taking aim once again at the H-1B, the tech industry's most-coveted visa system.

The H-1B is a three-year nonimmigrant visa that allows companies to hire specialized foreign labor. It has drawn the criticism of President Trump, however, who claims that it has allowed U.S. companies to hire foreign workers at the expense of American jobs. Businesses, in theory, are supposed to use the H-1B system only if an American doesn't have the skills necessary to fulfill the role in question, though many say this hasn't been the case.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Department of Labor announced plans to crack down on the program. It says it will work with federal agencies to investigate and prosecute violators, and it aims to change aspects of the Labor Condition Application, a required part of the H-1B application process that specifies the working conditions and proposed wages. Also, for the first time, the government has set up a formal email address that lets workers submit tips and report fraud.

"In recent years, some employers have used the H-1B program to hire foreign workers despite American workers being qualified and available for work or even to replace American workers," the statement reads.

For the tech industry, which has routinely complained about a lack of technically trained workers in the U.S., this news will surely be sobering. Employers are likely to face increased scrutiny and paperwork requirements as a result of this directive. Many tech companies rely on the ability to secure H-1Bs, and have spent millions lobbying Congress to raise its annual cap of 85,000. In 2014, Apple received 443 of these visas, with 728 going to Google, and 877 to Amazon, according to the most recent available data.

If it becomes harder for companies to win these visas, the tech industry will almost certainly suffer, argues Bradley Tusk, the founder and CEO of Tusk Ventures, a venture capital firm that helps tech startups navigate government regulation. "Innovation is what our country does best, and getting the world's most talented to help us build the next Google, Amazon or Apple is critical to our economic and national security," he says.

Even so, Ronil Hira, a political science professor at Howard University who tracks immigration trends, calls this recent move "a small step in the right direction." But he anticipates that the email address may be more symbolic than practical, inasmuch as employees might still be loath to file complaints for fear of getting 'blacklisted.' (Hira has helped several workers to file complaints of H-1B visa abuse.)

The news also comes as U.S.C.I.S. instituted new guidance over the weekend on how immigration officials should vet applicants, arguing that computer programmers are not presumed to qualify.

Still, the Department of Labor's move to crack down on the system could also be considered a good thing for tech. "If there is fraudulent use, those fraudsters would be squeezed out of the system," explains Hira. "[That] would free up visas for people who are using it the way it's supposed to be used."

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Published on: Apr 5, 2017