Analysis

U.S. Visa Freeze May Portend Wider Crackdown on Foreign Tech Workers

Immigration lawyers says Israelis rarely use fast-tracked H-1B program suspended last week, but rules for other visa categories may be toughened.

A high-tech workplace in Israel.
Ilya Melnikov

The U.S. governments decision over the weekend to freeze fast-track approvals for H-1B visas – the category used heavily in the high-tech industry – isnt likely to affect the flow of Israelis between Silicon Valley and Startup Nation.

But experts say the move could signal tougher policies by the Trump administration as it favors Americans over immigrants and other foreign workers in the job market. Israelis are very nervous, said Daliah Sklar, whose DRSI Law Office in Bnei Brak specializes in immigration issues.

The H-1B and other types of visas act as a critical pipeline to the United States for Israeli high-tech companies, enabling them to send employees to work in their key market.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on Friday that it was suspending its premium service for the H-1B visa, which allows foreigners with special skills to work for up to three years in the country.

The premium service cuts the processing time from three-to-six months to just 15 days and is used by nearly all employers because the waiting time for an ordinary approval is too long to be useful.

Hilla Nattiv, an immigration lawyer based in San Francisco, described the suspension as incredibly frustrating. She said the practical effect will be that employers will look for American hires rather than foreigners.

Israelis, however, rarely apply for an H-1B visa. In 2014, only 597 were approved out of an annual, total ceiling of 85,000. Even that number represents a nearly two-thirds drop from a peak of 1,530 Israelis in 2004.

Indian outsourcing companies, providing software development and information technology services to U.S. companies, have swamped the system in recent years to the point that applications exceed places by a factor of three, said attorneys.

James Cohen, of Cohen, Decker, Pex, Brosh Law Offices, called the H-1B system for awarding visas completely nuts. The chances of getting one arent that great, so the alternatives are better, he said.

The result is that most Israelis headed for jobs in the U.S. opt for an alphabet soup of other visa options, like the E1 for employees or owners of companies that do business with the U.S., or the O category for athletes, artists and successful businesspeople, immigration attorneys explained.

But some of these legal experts said that even these visa categories may become less available under the Trump administration.

Sklar said applicants for the L-1 visa, which is used by international companies who wish to send staff to the U.S., have been subject to higher scrutiny. E visas, too, she said: They [immigration officials] are very harsh with clients, verging on impolite.

But attorneys disagreed whether that signals a wider crackdown. The visa process was getting tougher even before Trump took office, but the new president has made clear he wants to rein in foreign competition to American workers, whether by rewriting trade agreements or restricting immigration.

H-1B has been under fire for some time because Indian companies have been accused of abusing the program to send lower-paid employees to America to replace Americans.

Cohen, who has been practicing immigration law for 25 years, said he hadnt detected any major change in policy yet. Its too early to know what will happen with the Trump administration . Honestly, it goes back and forth over the years, he said.

Nattiv said the significance of the H-1B freeze depends on whether it really was a simple administrative decision by the immigration agency, or whether the White House was involved in it.

Top administration officials like Trumps chief adviser, Steve Bannon, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions take a dim view of liberal immigration policies.

If they are involved somehow through a back-channel executive order, then this may very well be one of the many pending behind-the-curtain mechanisms this new administration will utilize to implement its immigration agenda, Nattiv said, adding, however, that right now there was no evidence of that.