Reduced hiring by US companies and the likelihood of visa-processing officials being furloughed could have a major impact on Indian techies based abroad.

Last week, the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 federal employees, pointed out that around 11,000 US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officials could soon be furloughed. The USCIS is a self-funded agency and relies on application fees for funding its activities. The USCIS’ current fee schedule is expected to bring in $3.41 billion of average annual revenue in FY20, opine industry watchers.

“If furloughs happen it will significantly delay the process for people whose H1-B is set to expire or want to file for green cards,” said Prashanthi Reddy, an immigration lawyer from the New York-based Law Offices of Prashanthi Reddy. These officials process visa-related applications.

Applications for H1-B visas have consistently overshot their annual cap every time since last decade, which reflects the continued demand year after year for tech workers. According to USCIS and ratings agency CARE, applications have been received for 217,000 H1-B visas in March 2020. In comparison, around 190,100 petitions were filed with the USCIS in FY19.

“This begs the question as to whether the government has not budgeted for a situation where processing could reduce drastically,” asks Rohit Turkhud, Partner, Fakhoury Global Immigration.

Visa renewals

Every year, 65,000 H1-B and 20,000 L-1 visas are granted, including renewals, and the US government gives 60 days for an H1-B visa to file for a renewal.

The outbreak of Covid-19 pandemichas put many companies in the US on the backfoot in terms of hiring. According to US Labor Department data, since the US economy came to a halt in March, more than 40 million Americans have lost jobs. Generally, US multinational tech companies and Indian software services companies apply for H1-B visas. “Many companies are not actually filing cases because of a freeze in the IT sector on new hires,” according to Reddy. While it is difficult to put an exact number, as per 2016 US Census data, around there were 2.3 million non-immigrant workers, of which, 25 per cent or 5.75 lakh workers from India could be impacted.

The situation is also accentuated by the fact that Indian software services companies, the major users of H1-B, have had it tough in the last few years as scrutiny has gone up, and any issue found with the application makes the visa approval tedious. Visa rejection rates were around 30 per cent in 2019, and two Indian companies were among the top-10 ten visa recipients.

“It is taking 8-12 months for them to process some H-1B cases, and if the processing times increase, the position could no longer be available,” said Reddy.

However, a lot depends on the US economy once Covid-19 normalises. “It is difficult to ascertain the implications on visas as employers could file for applications if the economic activity picks up,” said Turkhud.

Asylum cases and L-1 visas for intra-company transferees are also on hold as people cannot travel to the US. “The temporary suspension and the general rhetoric by the US government has also effected filings as everyone in a wait-and-watch mode, anxious about impending changes in the immigration law, said a lawyer.