How will the new H-1B rules impact German companies?

Zeit Online recently ran an article about announcement by the Trump administration that H-1B visas will be more closely screened than before, and that the focus on protecting US workers will increase. While these changes will (eventually) impact some companies, particularly in the tech area, many German investors will be impacted only indirectly by changes to the H-1B program.

Most small to mid-sized German companies (the so-called Mittelstand) look to two other options for their personnel needs in the USA – the L visa and the E-visa. Neither visa has a separate mechanism to protect US workers because of their limited scope and purpose, and because other limitations (such as specific qualifications or business requirements) limit their use. Neither visa has been subject to the same level of alleged abuse as the H-1B visa (although the L visa has suffered some collateral damage), and thus far neither program has been subject to the same level of animosity from the Trump administration.

The L-visa allows current or recent employees of a German company to be transferred to a US subsidiary or affiliate if they meet certain qualifications. Since the visa is for the transfer of an existing employee, and is to further the exchange of knowledge between related companies, typically only a relatively small number of people can qualify. As a result, there should be little threat to US workers on a larger scale, who wouldn’t have the knowledge necessary for the position anyway since it is specific to the transferring company.

The E-visa allows German companies who trade extensively with the US (E-1) or invest in the United States (E-2) to hire a German national in the US to oversee that trade or investment. The idea is that the investment or trade would not happen without the assistance of someone whom the investor trusts, or someone who has at least the same cultural background as the investor/trader. Since the program is limited to nationals of a specific country with specific qualifications, the overall risk posed by the program to US workers is also limited.

This is not to say that the kerfuffle over H-1B visas doesn’t impact German companies at all. First of all, when H-1B visas become difficult to obtain the strain on other visa categories becomes much greater. The L-1B visa for non-managerial workers in particular has been utilized by companies who can’t obtain enough H-1B visas, often in ways which weren’t really intended uses for the visa. As L-1Bs become more difficult to get, more employers seek to obtain the more preferable L-1A (for managers), which increases scrutiny of that category as well. Not surprisingly, all of the extra scrutiny in the L category makes the E-visa a more attractive option for German companies which, in turn, makes those more difficult to obtain.

Of course, German companies who have already managed to establish a subsidiary in the US (especially in the IT industry) often find that their help wanted ads are answered by foreign nationals, who in turn require a visa (often an H-1B) for employment. As one of my clients once mentioned to me, the German headquarters was not at all happy about having established a US entity at great effort and cost, for the purpose of having an “American” presence, only to turn around and hire Indian nationals and spend money on additional visa applications.

Overall, German companies with a solid business plan and a real need can still obtain the visas they need, although with a little more effort and scrutiny. So far, most (but not all) of those German nationals can still enter the US without too much trouble, although sometimes with more scrutiny and effort there as well. The bigger question for the US is whether the constant barrage of bad news and border control horror stories will make Germans reconsider investing in the US at all.

Huge Crackdown on H-1B visas!!! Not really.

For a moment, it looked like the H-1B filing deadline was going to pass without much change from the previous administration. Other than a shot across the bow the Trump administration did little to indicate any real changes to the program. Yesterday’s announcements didn’t really change that in any substantive way, although they did add a new sense of concern over whether – and how – the administration would go after companies it perceives are putting US workers in a “disfavored status.” DoNotEnter

After all, the tests for obtaining an H-1B visa don’t really measure, or even attempt to measure, whether an available US worker was overlooked. Rather, the goal is to ensure that there is no wage incentive to hire foreign workers over similarly qualified US workers, the idea being that market forces would do the rest. In some sense, that’s a very Republican approach to regulation, and for some time it worked pretty well.

Since the late nineties, however, the H-1B visa program has become much more controversial. For many it’s seen as a vehicle to bring in cheaper workers with lesser qualifications to unfairly complete for US jobs. The tech industry, on the other hand, insists that these visas are critical for the US IT industry.

There’s no doubt that there is abuse in the H-1B program (and, as a result, the L-1B visa program as well), and that the program could readily be improved. There’s also little doubt that the pool of ready, willing, and qualified US workers looking to step into these positions is limited. Indeed, many of my clients, coming in from overseas to start doing business in the United States, have been extremely frustrated to find that the pool of qualified workers in their area is made up largely of other non-US workers for whom expensive and time-consuming visa applications are required. The program would definitely benefit from a balanced review by Congress and some smart modifications, as have been proposed by any number of practitioners and law professors. A good start might be limiting the use of H-1B visas and L-1B visas by so-called body shops, since those employers have the market power to push down H-1B wages significantly over time.

Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening, and the administration’s ad hoc method of changing immigration law is sowing uncertainty while giving companies neither the time nor the tools to plan for change. Had this announcement been made in January, companies whose use of the H-1B visa was perhaps unnecessary or improper would have at least had the chance to test the US market and determine whether the non-US worker was actually needed. As with the travel ban, however, this most recent announcement comes after all of the applications have been prepared, checks have been cut and, frankly, most everything was already in the mail. As with the travel ban, that’s not fair to the companies or the people who are planning on those visas for their livelihood.

A Shot Across the Bow for H-1B Workers

In a move sure to upset many in the tech industry, the Trump administration has temporarily suspended the expedited processing of H-1B visas for a period of six months. H-1B visas are often used to bring in programmers and other technical personnel from overseas, and have been both heavily oversubscribed and heavily criticized in recent years.
It’s a little difficult to determine how much of an impact the delay in processing (from 15 days to three to six months) will have right now. On one hand, many of the applications received in April 2017 can’t begin work until the new government fiscal year begins on October 1, 2017 anyway. On the other, businesses who depend on H-1B workers skills will be reluctant to pin their business’s plans on a worker whose status won’t be known until well into the summer months. One thing is certain – US tech companies who are dependent on H-1B should start considering alternatives, since this is not likely to be the last attempt by Trump and the Republican Congress to limit the use (and abuse) of H-1B visas.