Bucking the national trend, H-1B visa applications continue to grow in the Bay Area

Applications for the H-1B visa, the program that allows companies to hire skilled immigrants, grew 3.2 percent during 2017 in the San Francisco Bay Area. That may not seem like much, but it bucks a national decline in H-1B visa applications since Donald Trump was elected president.

Throughout 2017, more than 61,000 foreigners filed an H-1B application to work in the counties of Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco and Alameda, an analysis of data provided by the US Department of Labor shows.

Even though the number of applications in the Bay Area is still growing, the trend has slowed in the last five years. From fiscal years 2013 to 2014, H-1B applications rose by 24 percent, by 11 percent the next year and by 7 percent the year after that.

The number of visa applications in the Bay Area is significantly higher than in other locations. The rate of H-1B visa applications is 117 per 10,000 people in these four counties. The rate for the five counties that make up New York City is 30 –four times smaller–, and the national rate is 16 –seven times smaller.

On April 18, 2017, Trump signed the “American Jobs First Act,” an executive order that directed the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Homeland Security to suggest reforms to ensure that H-1B visas were given to the “most-skilled or highest paid” applicants.

Usually, more petitions are filed than visas are available within the first week of the application period, which starts every April 1, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. That means that H-1B visas get assigned by chance in an annual lottery.

Some of the immigration regulatory changes proposed by the Trump Administration would involve changing this lottery system. This could especially affect smaller startups with less economic resources– and intensifying scrutiny in H-1B visa renewals.

The top users of H-1B

The American branch of the Indian company HCL ranks first, but tech companies based in the counties of San Mateo and Santa Clara, such as Google, Intel, Apple and Facebook, are among the top users of this type of visa in the Bay Area.

Almost three-quarters of the petitions were filed by Indian citizens, followed by Chinese, Canadian and Philippine, an analysis of data provided by the US Department of State shows.

Software developers, analysts, programmers and engineers represent the most common positions held by H-1B applicants in the Bay Area.

These positions are the hardest to fill up, said Punit Soni, CEO and co-founder of the Mountain View-based startup Robin. Especially when it comes to engineering and artificial intelligence positions he needs.

Regulations will affect smaller companies

Part of the proposed regulatory changes the Administration is planning would change the lottery system for awarding the H-1B visa and give preference to the highest-paying jobs.

This could especially impact smaller companies, which don’t have the same economic resources as the big tech companies and can’t afford to pay the same wages, said Soni, CEO of Robin.

This startup is working on an artificial intelligence-powered, voice-enabled digital assistant for doctors. Three out of their 16 employees has or applied for an H-1B visa this year.

Soni said the competition between tech companies is very high.

“My company has low salary because it’s a startup,” Soni said.  Larger companies, such as Amazon or Google, “can hire potentially good quality talent” because they have the resources necessary to do so.

The scrutiny during the process of the applications has also been changed since Trump moved into the White House, said Gali Schaham Gordon, immigration lawyer of the San Francisco-based Gordon Law Group.

“Cases that sailed through in the past are now subjected to requests for additional evidence to a degree that is unprecedented,” Gordon said.

Martin Gouy is a French data scientist for Euclid Analytics, a retail analytics startup based in San Francisco. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, he applied for the H-1B visa in 2017, but he didn’t win the lottery. He’s still using the temporary work authorization that his student visa offered, but it will expire in the next few months. This year, he reapplied for the H-1B and is waiting for a final decision.

“At the beginning I was pretty confident I would get the H-1B, but now it’s a bit less clear, especially since the regulations will be changing pretty fast,” Gouy said.


Silicon Valley will be impacted

Even with the increase in visa applications in the region, the Bay Area will be especially impacted. Almost three-quarters of Silicon Valley are foreign-born, according to a recent analysis by The Seattle Times.

“The climate of uncertainty has a negative effect on tech companies, who rely on foreign national employees,” Gordon said.

Given this reliance on immigrants, regulations will be significant even for big companies, Gordon said.

Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor chip maker, was co-founded by a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and now employs more than 100,000 people.

The Silicon Valley-based company has pushed back against the new immigration regulations. In late November, Intel signed an amicus brief with other tech companies. In a statement, the semiconductor chip maker said they would continue to “support lawful immigration that enables people from around the world to bring their talent, energy and creativity to the United States.”

“A combination of startups and immigrants has helped build up (Silicon Valley),” said Soni of Robin.

Gouy, the recent engineering graduate from Berkeley,  agrees. “All the best engineers and data scientists are here.”

Apart from the rules that would favor higher-paid applicants, the Department of Homeland Security decided in October 2017 to consider new regulations that would make it more difficult to renew an H-1B. This type of visa, valid for three years, can be extended for another three years. With the new regulations, US Citizenship and Immigration Services advised its officers to review a renewal request as thoroughly as they would initial an H-1B visa application.

This would revoke the previous rule, which gave “deference” to previously approved visas if the conditions remained unchanged.

“The result (of the discussion of regulations) is that … petitions take much longer to be approved,” said Gordon.

Future of regulations

The “American Jobs First Act,” introduced in April 2017, still needs to pass both the House and Senate to become law. However, the bill hasn’t been acted on since May last year.

While the rules keep changing, high skilled-immigrants need to prepare for different scenarios, said Gouy, one of those new applicants, as there’s much more uncertainty with respect to H-1Bs than ever before.

“We’re literally going against us,” said Soni. “In the interest of the country, we should have people from all over the world to help and make the technology better.”


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