The Trump administration has dramatically stepped up its scrutiny of visa applications for technology workers, forcing some Massachusetts companies and academic institutions to wait months to fill jobs designated for overseas workers.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services is challenging the work credentials of a much higher percentage of applicants this year than in previous periods, requiring more companies to provide documentation to prove the proposed employee both had special skills and will be paid at a fair rate.
Through the first eight months of 2017, the immigration agency issued more than 85,000 “requests for evidence” to applicants for H-1B visas, the highest number since 2009 and a 45 percent increase over the comparable period in 2016.
“They’re going at every part of the program, really,” said Prasant D. Desai, an attorney at Boston-based Iandoli Desai & Cronin, who represents academic institutions and companies seeking to bring in H-1B workers. “I think the immigration practitioners like myself knew this was going to happen. It’s just that the speed at which it is happening is a little breathtaking.”
The H-1B program allows companies to temporarily hire foreign workers for jobs that require specialized knowledge and training that includes a college degree. They are heavily used in information technology, science, and engineering.
While President Trump has proposed sharp reductions in various immigration programs, he has not specifically tried to change the terms of the H-1B program. Instead, the administration is changing the program from within.
In April, Trump issued the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order, which ordered agencies “to rigorously enforce and administer the laws governing entry into the United States of workers from abroad.”
And the immigration service has directed its agents to more rigorously review each H-1B applicant, both for new positions and returning employees. The agency is also beginning to interview applicants as a way to detect fraud and national security risks.
Citizenship and Immigration said in a statement that it is working under “existing statutory and regulatory requirements to evaluate petitions and make an eligibility determination,” to thoroughly vet candidates.
“As done in the past, officers evaluate each petition on a case-by-case basis to determine if a petition qualifies for the benefit being requested,” the agency said in a statement.
But lawyers involved in immigration matters see a clear trend.
William Brah, director of the Venture Development Center at University of Massachusetts Boston, which brings in international entrepreneurs to mentor students while starting companies, said candidates for his program are seeing an unprecedented number of roadblocks.
“It’s not unusual in the world of immigration to get a request for evidence, but this one is being sent to everyone who applies,” Brah said. “We’re not sure what the rationale is other than slowing down immigration.”
Susan Cohen, head of the immigration law department at Mintz, Levin, who also represents both companies and academic institutions hiring on H-1B visas, said immigration officials are requesting a “laundry list” of information, “four, five, or six single-spaced pages, some of them.”
“It’s a problem for the companies and employers in the United States that have people in mind for jobs,” Cohen added. “In many of them they’ve invested plenty of time and training.”
Many said the government requests are focused particularly on entry-level computer science jobs, Cohen said.
Though those might sound like positions that would be easy to fill with American labor, Cohen said that even entry-level roles in technology are often highly specialized, and the people sponsored for visas are specifically trained for those positions during their education.
The delays can take months. The government has not released any data on how many applications it has denied after requesting additional evidence.
H-1Bs have long been a political target. Technology companies and corporations with large IT operations say they are necessary to fill positions that are empty because of a shortage of skilled workers domestically, especially those with high-end computer skills, or to recruit particularly promising talent with singular skills.
Tech companies around the country have vigorously defended the program, going so far as to push to have even more H-1B visa holders allowed into the country by relaxing the quotas. Federal law limits the number of new visas the government can issue to companies each year to 65,000, plus another 20,000 to those who have earned advanced degrees at US institutions. Adding to those numbers are thousands of H-1B visa holders at nonprofit institutions such as medical research facilities and universities, which are not subject to the annual caps. In fiscal 2016, the Citizenship and Immigration agency approved 114,502 new applications in total, and another 230,759 renewing visa holders.
But critics have argued the program is abused by corporations that rely on it for cheap skilled labor, effectively using those workers as part of an outsourcing strategy that costs Americans well-paying jobs.
William P. Cook, who was general counsel of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service under President George H.W. Bush, said he believes the recent shifts are a reasonable effort to more faithfully apply the law.
He said the Obama administration was too lenient in reviewing visa requests, allowing companies to file applications that did not make a strong case for the employee to work in the United States. He believes companies will submit better applications in the future, and identify more qualified candidates.
“The question is, why do they need so much foreign labor to be able to get this work done, when according to the statistics so many Americans are unemployed or underemployed?” said Cook, a managing member of the Washington-based Global Migration Law Group, who primarily works on other visas issues. “And the answer is, they’re cheap.”
Workers from India received nearly three-quarters of H-1B visas in fiscal 2016, and outsourcing companies focused on information technology regularly take up the largest shares of the available visas, then send the workers to other companies as consultants.
Though the companies must clear the workers’ wages with the US Department of Labor, critics say the workers are still underpaid compared to what Americans would get on the job.
The Trump administration’s heightened scrutiny has become a diplomatic issue between the two countries, with Indian officials stressing that the foreign workers make an important contribution to the US economy.
After Trump’s Hire American push, one of the most prominent of the Indian outsourcing firms, Infosys Ltd., announced it would hire 10,000 US workers, including at least 500 people at a new office in Providence.
But the increased oversight has touched people working for companies both large and small, according to people working in immigration here.
The visas are in such high demand that the immigration service conducts an annual drawing in the spring to see which applications will be considered. Typically, petitions that make it through the drawing have a strong chance of being granted.
Instead, many of the certified petitions are being hit with evidence requests, holding up the process. The shift has also affected people working for organizations linked to higher education, nonprofit research, or government, who are not subject to the cap.
Desai, the lawyer, said he represents an applicant who has just finished her medical residency and had to return home to await her visa. The government challenged whether the woman’s workplace was truly associated with an institution of higher education. Desai said it was an unusual request because she worked for a medical practice associated with a major teaching hospital.
She eventually was granted her visa after waiting two months, Desai said, and she is now working as a doctor in the Boston area.
“It’s extremely stressful for everybody involved in the program,” he said. “It’s not just the individual, because they’re part of a bigger team. The team suffers.”Hiawatha Bray of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andy Rosen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.