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US ends suspension of working visa programmes amid calls for restoration of visa processing services

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Former US President Trump’s Presidential Proclamation 10052, which suspended foreign worker visas including the H-1B working visa category, expired on 31 March 2021
  • President Biden will not renew the proclamation, and the visa programmes will resume
  • The H-1B visa programme is a major driver of demand from the Indian market for US educators
  • Meanwhile, visa services in US diplomatic posts abroad remain very limited and international educators are calling on the American government to expand or resume visa processing

In June 2020, former US President Trump issued a directive entitled the Proclamation Suspending Entry of Aliens Who Present a Risk to the US Labor Market Following the Coronavirus Outbreak. That proclamation, which banned the issuance of visas including H-1Bs, expired on 31 March 2021, and President Biden has elected not to renew it.

H-1B visas are intended to attract highly skilled workers, notably to the information technology sector in the US. The visa programme has been a major draw particularly for Indian students, many of whom go to the US to study with the express intent of working there after graduating.

Goldman Sachs data show that Indian graduates accounted for 70% of H-1B visa-holders in the US in 2015, and Indian Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedhara announced last month that this percentage held in 2019 as well.

NAFSA notes that due to the expiry of Presidential Proclamation 10052,

“Visa applicants who have not yet been interviewed or scheduled for an interview will have their applications prioritised and processed in accordance with existing phased resumption of visa services guidance. Visa applicants who were previously refused visas due to the restrictions of Presidential Proclamation 10052 may reapply by submitting a new application including a new fee.”

Indian enrolments down in 2020

The suspension of the H-1B programme was deeply troubling for many US educators given how dependent they are on Indian enrolments. Indian students accounted for roughly 17% of all US student visas issued in 2019 and 2020.

SEVIS data also reveal that Indian student numbers in the US fell by 41,761 (-16.8%) in 2020, with the greatest losses occurring in August/September (after former President Trump’s proclamation was issued).

The resumption of the H-1B programme will almost certainly renew Indian students’ demand for US education – which will be helpful especially in a context where COVID is wreaking so much havoc on international enrolments in all destinations.

Background on the 2020 visa suspension

Last June, the Trump administration had positioned the ban as a decision essential for the protection of American workers’ jobs during the pandemic. President Trump said at the time that American workers “were hurt through no fault of their own due to coronavirus and they should not remain on the sidelines while being replaced by new foreign labour.”

The presidential proclamation stated, “I have determined that the entry, through 31 December 2020, of certain aliens as immigrants and non-immigrants would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” His administration eventually went on to extend the ban through 31 March 2021. Research has since shown that unemployment in the tech sector remained low throughout the pandemic, undermining former President Trump’s basis for the H-1B’s suspension.

Last year, then-presidential candidate Biden had issued this statement objecting to the proclamation:

“To the contrary [Presidential Proclamation 10052] harms the United States, including by preventing certain family members of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents from joining their families here. It also harms industries in the United States that utilize talent from around the world.”

Many Indian students expressed shock at former President Trump’s proclamation on social media accounts, and there were also calls from India for students to return to India to contribute their talents there.

IT sectors will welcome the return of the H-1B visa

The suspension of the H-1B programme was also a challenge for major tech companies in India, which had been used to hiring skilled workers returning from the US after their H-1B visas expired. The information technology sector contributes US$191 billion to the Indian economy, and the US is the world’s largest market for the sector.

As soon as it began looking like President Biden would pull ahead of former President Trump in the 2020 US election, stocks began to rally in India’s leading IT companies. These massive companies include Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, HCL Technologies, Wipro, and Tech Mahindra. The upward trend was prompted largely by an expectation that a Biden administration would adopt more favourable policies affecting India’s tech sector.

Industry calls for visa services to resume

While the resumption of H-1B and other working visa programmes is welcome news, many US educators, agents, and incoming students are struggling with a more immediate concern at the moment in that many US embassies and consulates are offering only limited visa services, or none at all, at this time.

An 18 March joint letter from the American Council of Education and dozens of other stakeholder groups appealed to the government for urgent action on the issue.

“Given the processing time for visas, we believe there are actions that need to be taken now to allow enough time for processing and for international students to make plans to travel to the United States safely,” said the letter. “March and April are critical months for the processing of visas for the fall 2021 semester. International students around the world must make their country choices and begin the visa process in April to ensure they can arrive for the beginning of the fall semester. By taking action on these immediate issues, you can also deliver a welcoming message to current and prospective international students, which can help restore the U.S. as a destination of choice, as well as supporting an important economic activity as the U.S. economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Similarly, the Alliance of International Exchange’s Executive Director, Ilir Zherka, applauded President Biden’s decision to let Presidential Proclamation 10052 expire, but he also urged more action to allow exchange programmes in the US to recover from the pandemic. Currently, the J-1 visas that international students require to enrol in American exchange programmes are not being issued due to COVID-19 travel bans. Mr Zherka noted that “an estimated 6500 jobs and US$303 million were lost by [exchange programme employers] and others in related fields last year due to the pandemic.” He urged the administration to “except J-1 visas from the travel bans and prioritise the processing of these visas.”

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