Biden puts H-1B on the back burner; immigrants, refugees come first


‘We have prioritized the processing of immigrant visas. Full stop,’ says consular official.

Indian tech professionals face a longer wait for the coveted H-1B visas as the Joe Biden administration is still undecided on lifting former President Donald Trump’s ban on high skilled work visas.

At a White House briefing Monday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas made it amply clear that for the new administration immigration visas and refugees fleeing persecution come first.

“You know, I don’t really — I hate to end the questioning on a question, the answer to which I am not certain,” he said when asked whether White House plans to lift the Trump ban before it expires on March 31.

“But, look, this goes to what preceded us,” Mayorkas said.  “We have so much work to do to repair and to restore and to rebuild that we have a prioritization matrix.”

“And, of course, the acute needs of individuals fleeing persecution is a high priority, which brings me to this meeting this morning.

Indians have been getting more than two thirds of 65,000 H-1B visa issued annually. These allow US corporates to employ workers from foreign countries in specialty occupations.

Citing high unemployment situation due to coronavirus pandemic, Trump had frozen permanent residency for immigrants and halted temporary work visas for skilled workers, managers and au pairs in the H-1B, H-4, H-2B, L-1 and J categories.

Trump ordered the work visa freeze until Dec. 31, 2020 through two proclamations on April 22 and June 22 last year, but extended it till March 31, a couple of weeks before leaving office.

On Feb. 24, Biden issued a proclamation revoking Trump’s orders that blocked individuals from entering the United States on immigrant visas.

But it has not yet lifted the freeze on H-1B, J-1, and L-1 visas, which will remain in effect until March 31 unless Biden extends the ban with a fresh proclamation.

Currently more than 470,000 immigrant visa cases are pending in US consulates across the globe, according to latest US government data.

“We have prioritized the processing of immigrant visas. Full stop,” said Julie Stufft, Consular Affairs Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services at a separate briefing.

The US will continue to prioritize immigrant visas for spouses and children of US citizens, she said.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that H-1B visa restructuring to increase visas for highly skilled foreign workers could fall by the wayside this year if Democrats decide to break Biden’s sweeping immigration legislation into small bills.

While Biden’s immigration plan calls for dramatically boosting the number of green cards and expanding other avenues for high-skilled workers, House Democrats are weighing a piecemeal approach to immigration, it said.

Tech leaders like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai want Congress to expand and update the H-1B visa system.But that reform, once backed by lawmakers in both parties, now faces bipartisan skepticism, according to lawmakers, Bloomberg said.

READ: The forgotten workers: Why is no one talking about L-2 visa, EAD delays? L-2 holders are suffering as much as H-4 holders (February 23, 2021)

Passing skilled worker visa reform during the pandemic-sparked economic crisis would be “pretty difficult,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio was quoted as saying.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who introduced Biden’s bill, said any additional foreign worker visas would only get support as part of a broader bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“I’m happy to consider other things but the key is, how do I get the 11 million or parts thereof on a pathway?” Menendez was quoted as saying. “So it can’t just be high-tech visas and it can’t just be farm workers for growers.”

Any increase in H-1B visas will be a tough sell in the current Congress, amid potential opposition from labor unions on the left and a more hawkish stance on immigration on the rights, Bloomberg said.

But H-1B Visas could be part of Congress’s horse-trading, it said citing  Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin.

Asked if he supports more H-1B visas or green cards for skilled workers, Durbin told Bloomberg only if it’s part of the horse-trading necessary to get a bigger bill with a citizenship pathway and other provisions.

“I’ll try to answer this tactfully: If it brings votes for final passage, it’s a priority,” the Illinois Democrat was quoted as saying in an interview.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden’s aides have not yet had “extensive conversations” with lawmakers on how his immigration proposal will move through Congress but indicated the package could change.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month signaled she would consider taking on immigration changes piece-by-piece while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Feb. 23 that he prefers a comprehensive approach to “get as much done as possible.”


H-1B restrictions unlikely to vanish anytime in near future (February 26, 2021)

Biden reopens gateway for work visas, green cards (February 25, 2021)

H-2B cap reached for second half of FY 2021 (February 25, 2021)

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