H-1B Electronic Pre-Registration: Streamlining or Chaos?

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Come next year, tech firms that want to hire H-1B visa workers will face a process that’s supposed to be simplified… but might turn into a complete boondoggle (yes, that’s a technical term). 

Earlier this month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) confirmed that spring 2020 will see the debut of an electronic pre-registration process for the H-1B visa program. (This update isn’t much of a surprise, considering the agency announced plans for it at the beginning of 2019, but implementation is apparently underway now.) Online registration will cost $10 per application; only those companies whose registrations are selected via the subsequent lottery will have to complete the visa petitions, which are quite lengthy.

“By streamlining the H-1B cap selection process with a new electronic registration system, (the government) is creating cost savings and efficiencies for petitioners and the agency, as only those selected will now be required to submit a full petition,” Mark Koumans, deputy director of USCIS, wrote in a statement to the San Francisco Chronicle.

But critics and advocates of the H-1B system have concerns. The federal government doesn’t exactly have the greatest track record when it comes to launching big online registration systems that run smoothly; recall how, several years ago, Healthcare.gov crashed repeatedly as people tried to review and register for healthcare plans. More recently, a web portal set up for filing H-2B visas melted down under the traffic load. That sort of history gives folks planning on applying for an H-1B visa some cause for worry. 

Critics of the H-1B program feel that easy, cheap pre-registration will encourage business-services and consulting firms to flood the system with applicants, thwarting years-long attempts to make the system more selective and focused on “specialized talent.” Firms with a legitimate need for highly unique talent from overseas might feel that pre-registration, and the resulting applicant flood, will ultimately harm their chances.

Those candidates who make it through the lottery will have 90 days to submit the fully prepared petitions—but with the rate of H-1B denials rising exponentially, there’s no guarantee that even the most rigorous application will make it through the process. Over the past few years, the Trump administration has approved fewer and fewer H-1B applications:

The messiness of the process—and the lack of transparency—also means that companies irate over denials may continue to file an escalating number of lawsuits against the federal government. That’s great for lawyers’ fees, but not anyone else. And that’s before you consider the additional complication of the federal government redefining H-1B’s “specialty occupations.”

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