Citizenship for H-1B Visa Holders?

Last Friday, January 11, 2019, President Trump tweeted

H1-B Holders In The United States Can Rest Assured That Changes Are Soon Coming Which Will Bring Both Simplicity And Certainty To Your Stay, Including A Potential Path To Citizenship. We Want To Encourage Talented And Highly Skilled People To Pursue Career Options In The U.S.

This unexpected remark sent shock waves through the various sectors of people invested in the H-1B visa program, including businesses, STEM workers, immigration lawyers, and immigration advocates on both sides. The tweet raises more questions than it answers – most importantly, what changes would be coming, and when would they come?

The H-1B visa program was established as part of the Immigration Act of 1990 under then-President George H. W. Bush. It allows U. S. employers to file a Petition with U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to sponsor a skilled worker in a specialty occupation. If the Petition is approved, the worker files an application with the U. S. Department of State for a temporary work visa, called an H-1B visa. The visa can be issued for a period of up to three years, and can be extended to six years. There are a total of 85,000 visas available each year.

Because of the temporary nature of the visas, there are huge risks for both employers and employees in the H-1B visa process. The filing fees for the H-1B visa process are high, and the processing times are lengthy. The applications undergo intense scrutiny from USCIS, and employers often receive extensive requests for additional evidence, especially regarding whether the position is truly a specialty occupation. Employers must invest time and money into the process, knowing they may not be able to retain H-1B employees long term. H-1B visa holder employees must move to a new country, possibly uprooting spouses and children as well, knowing they may not be able to remain in the United States long term, and with their immigration status in in the United States tied to a specific employer.

These challenges make the idea of a simpler process, with a path to a permanent status and/or citizenship for H-1B visa holders attractive to both U. S. employers and H-1B visa holders. It is uncertain whether President Trump’s tweet will actually turn into changes into the H-1B visa process, what those changes might be, and when they would be implemented. The President has offered no further details, and USCIS has not issued any statements on the matter. Significant changes to the program would need to be made through legislation passed through Congress and signed by the President.