Biden’s Plans for H1Bs

Biden’s Plans for H1Bs

2020 was another contentious year for the U.S. immigration debate. This was no surprise, given the Covid crisis, its related economic downturn, and the election. The result was more uncertainty about the H1B visa program, especially for those in it. We’ll have a new administration this upcoming January. We’ve read Joe Biden’s immigration plan, and have highlighted the sections about H1Bs. How will his plan change the government’s approach to H1Bs? We’ll break it down below.

Quick note: like all campaign literature, we can’t take this plan as a road map for the future. The President of the United States has limited power to change immigration standards or policies without Congress. The courts struck down most of the Trump Administration’s attempts to do this. The Biden Administration could run into the same issue.

H1 Visa
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SECTION 1

“Biden will work with Congress to first reform temporary visas to establish a wage-based allocation process and establish enforcement mechanisms to ensure they are aligned with the labor market and not used to undermine wages.”

This policy is important for making sure H1B holders aren’t paid below market value, which would be exploitative to them and drives down American wages. It’s also a policy that already exists.

We have wage-based standards and enforcement mechanisms in this direction. They may not be perfect, but there’s nothing in this section to suggest this new policy would be any more effective. It’s also not as relevant as many would believe, as H1B holders make an average of 2.8% more than their American counterparts. It’s both a solution that’s already in place and for a problem that no longer exists like it used to.

SECTION 2

“Then, Biden will support expanding the number of high-skilled visas and eliminating the limits on employment-based visas by country, which create unacceptably long backlogs.”

The first part addresses the 85,000 H1B visas that are issued every year. It sounds like a big number, but over 201,000 applications were filed in 2020. Skeptics may say they’re fine with these numbers. Less H1Bs means more jobs for Americans, right?

Not so much. While total unemployment is up this year, engineering unemployment sits at 3.5%. The number is so low because of the United States’s technical skills shortage. We don’t have the people we need to fill important positions in the technology sector. If this continues, more work will move overseas. Bringing in more engineers, IT professionals, etc. is key to the United States remaining a high-tech leader.

The second part speaks to the per-country immigration limits that have made the wait for a Green Card so long, especially for Indian immigrants. Over 1,000,000 Indian immigrants have been approved for a Green Card, but have to live in legal limbo for the 10+ years it’s taking to get one. These are people who are working here, paying taxes, and building a life. The good news is the Senate passed a bipartisan bill in the first week of December to ease this restriction. This is one part of Biden’s plan taking shape before he’s even in the office.

SECTION 3

“As president, Biden will work with Congress to increase the number of visas awarded for permanent, employment-based immigration—and promote mechanisms to temporarily reduce the number of visas during times of high U.S. unemployment.”

The first part sounds like something that would impact H1Bs. Not so much. While immigrants are using H1Bs in their immigration process, the visa itself is still categorized for temporary, non-immigrant employment. This doesn’t apply, due to that technicality.

It does highlight the need for a new program covering permanent immigration in the STEM fields. There isn’t one right now, and the H1B visa has been used as a band-aid. We need a process designed for this purpose, so it can be fair to the immigrants, their employers, and the job market.

Referring to the reduction of visas during high unemployment, it’s not relevant to our current situation. As mentioned, the Covid crisis has not hit the tech sector in the same way as others. This might be different in future downturns. For the current market, this is a solution in search of a problem.

SECTION 4

“He will also exempt from any cap recent graduates of PhD programs in STEM fields in the U.S. who are poised to make some of the most important contributions to the world economy. Biden believes that foreign graduates of a U.S. doctoral program should be given a green card with their degree and that losing these highly trained workers to foreign economies is a disservice to our own economic competitiveness.”

This would be a change to our current system, but not as large as it may seem. PhD graduates are a small slice of the H1B picture. It may encourage more to come to the U.S., which would be a good thing.

While this wouldn’t change much in the current market, they’re thinking in the right direction. As stated before, we need a program that applies to any who receive a STEM degree from a U.S. school. It might not be getting an immediate Green Card, but it must pave a clear, inexpensive path for those in it.

It should be noted this would be a difficult change to get through the legislature. The American public isn’t well-educated on the issue, and politicians can still get a lot of mileage out of fighting these programs to “protect American jobs.” There needs to be a big push to educate the public on what’s going on.

SECTION 5

“The U.S. immigration system must guard against economy-wide wage cuts due to exploitation of foreign workers by unscrupulous employers who undercut the system by hiring immigrant workers below the market rate or go outside the immigration system to find workers. Biden will work with Congress to ensure that employers are not taking advantage of immigrant workers and that U.S. citizen workers are not being undercut by employers who don’t play by the rules. Biden will also work to ensure employers have the right tools to certify their workers’ employment status and will restore the focus on abusive employers instead of on the vulnerable workers they are exploiting.”

While this section primarily targets employers who hire undocumented workers, it does have ramifications for H1Bs. While there have been major improvements, it would be naive to assume H1B abuses don’t still occur. What this section discusses is making the consequences land more on the employer than the immigrants themselves. This would be a positive change, as it’s better to punish the exploiters than the exploited.

As you might expect from a Presidential campaign, the Biden plan includes a lot of big ideas. Starting in January, we’ll see where they fall in his priorities, and what he can get through the legislature.

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