The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said that it would suspend premium processing for H1-B visa applications, which allow thousands of foreign engineers and computer scientists to work in the United States for companies that sponsor them.
It usually takes several months for an H1-B application to be processed and entered into the random lottery that allots the work permits. But for a $1,295 filing fee, USCIS will decide on the application within 15 days. Starting in April 3rd, the premium processing option will be thrown out for six months.
The USCIS said that it stopped offering the service so that it could get through applications that had piled up in recent months. The move could create headaches for foreign workers applying for H1-Bs the first time, as well as visa holders changing jobs or seeking an extension. Though a small move, it could also hint at coming changes to the H1-B program.
This year, the U.S. distributed around 85,000 of the visas out of almost a quarter of a million applications. The H1-B program is widely used to bring top engineering talent to large U.S. technology firms, but it has drawn criticism for cutting off jobs for American engineers. The biggest H1-B recipients are foreign outsourcing firms.
The program has also been targeted by the Trump administration, which also recently issued an order to stop issuing new visas to people from countries including Iran and Syria. In January, a leaked draft of an executive order indicated that the White House intends to review the H1-B application process to ensure that only “the best and brightest” were approved.
President Trump has said that he favors overhauling the H1-B visa program, but has been short on specifics. Lawmakers and groups like the IEEE-USA have proposed getting rid of the H1-B lottery, giving priority to firms that pay higher wages. That approach could leave more entry-level jobs to American engineers, they say.
The White House missed its deadline to issue a notice on changing the lottery process last week. Whether that deadline could be circumvented with an executive order is unclear. But some experts believe that the suspension is meant to buy time to figure out which H1-B applications will get priority.
The USCIS has suspended the premium processing option in recent years. In 2015, the agency shut down the program to prepare for a flood of applications that would give employment eligibility to spouses dependent on H1-B visa holders. That suspension only lasted less than two months.
The citizenship and immigration agency says that the recent suspension will help it “process long-pending petitions, which we have currently been unable to process due to the high volume of incoming petitions and the significant surge in premium processing requests over the past few years.”