The United States (US) is set to give priority to foreigners who are educated in America in issuing H-1B work visas, as an independent group of lawmakers introduced a legislation in both the chambers of the US Congress proposing major reforms in skilled non-immigrant visa programmes.

It was introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley and Dick Durbin in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, it was introduced by Congressmen Bill Pascrell, Paul Gosar, Ro Khanna, Frank Pallone and Lance Gooden.

The H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act, as introduced in House of Representatives and Senate, will require US Citizenship and Immigration Services to prioritize for the first time the annual allocation of H-1B visas.

H-1B is a non-immigrant visa that allows companies in the US to employ foreign workers in speciality occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise. The technology companies depend on it to hire tens of thousands of employees each year from countries like India and China.

Nearly 500,000 migrant workers are employed in the US in the H-1B status.

The new system would ensure that the best and brightest students being educated in the United States receive preference for an H-1B visa, including advanced degree holders, those being paid a high wage, and those with valuable skills, according to the lawmakers who are proponents of this major legislative reforms.

“The legislation reinstates Congress’s original intent in the H-1B and L-1 visa programmes by increasing enforcement, modifying wage requirements and securing protections for both American workers and visa holders,” the lawmakers said on Friday.

This newly introduced¬† legislation, among other things, explicitly prohibits the replacement of American workers by H-1B or L-1 visa holders, clarifying that working conditions of similarly employed American workers may not be adversely affected by the hiring of an H-1B worker, including H-1B workers who have been placed by another employer at the American worker’s worksite.

These provisions address the types of abuses that have been well-documented.

Importantly, the legislation proposes increased crackdown on outsourcing companies that import large numbers of H-1B and L-1 workers for temporary training purposes only to send the workers back to their home countries to do the same job.

Specifically, the bill would prohibit companies with more than 50 employees, of which at least half are H-1B or L-1 holders, from hiring additional H-1B employees.

The bill gives the US Department of Labor enhanced authority to review, investigate, and audit employer compliance with programme requirements, as well as to penalise fraudulent or abusive conduct. It requires the production of extensive statistical data about the H-1B and L-1 programs, including wage data, worker education levels, place of employment, and gender.

In addition, the H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act encompasses several reforms of the L-1 visa programme, including establishment of a wage floor for L-1 workers; authority for the US Department of Homeland Security to investigate, audit, and enforce compliance with L-1 program requirements; assurance that intra-company transfers occur between legitimate branches of a company and don”t involve “shell” facilities; and a change to the definition of “specialized knowledge” to ensure that L-1 visas are reserved only for truly key personnel.

Asserting that Congress created these programmes to complement America’s high-skilled workforce, not replace it, Mr Grassley said that unfortunately, some companies are trying to exploit the programmes by cutting American workers for cheaper labour.

“We need programmes dedicated to putting American workers first. When skilled foreign workers are needed to meet the demands of our labour market, we must also ensure that visa applicants who honed their skills at American colleges and universities are a priority over the importation of more foreign workers. Our bill takes steps to ensure that the programs work for Americans and skilled foreign workers alike,” he said.

“Reforming the H-1B and L-1 visa programmes is a critical component of fixing the broken immigration system. For years, outsourcing companies have used loopholes in the laws to displace qualified American workers and facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs,” said Durbin .

“This legislation would end these abuses and protect American and foreign workers from exploitation,” he added.

Ro Khanna, an Indian American Congressman said that American immigrants come to this country with some of the most innovative, transformative ideas this world has ever seen.

“If we”re going to continue to foster a culture of creativity, we must reform the H-1 and L-1 visa programmes to protect all workers from abuses. Immigrants coming here on H-1B visas have made important contributions to Silicon Valley”s leadership in the digital revolution. We want to make sure that talent is coming to the US, but we also want to make sure that it”s being done with proper compensation,” said Khanna .

Congressman Pallone said that the US must ensure that qualified American workers have access to job opportunities in this country.

In April, President Donald Trump had said that he was suspending immigration for green card seekers for 60 days, arguing the controversial move would help Americans find work again after Coronavirus caused a surge in unemployment amid the current lockdown.

Indians are the single largest group of H-1B visa holders accounting for nearly 74 per cent of all such visas.

In addition to American firms, several Indian technology companies rely on the H-1B workforce to operate in the US.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the US government announced a grace period of 60 days to H-1B visa holders and Green Card applicants, who have been served notices for submission of various documents, taking into account the massive novel Coronavirus outbreak in America.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in early May had said the 60-day grace period for responding to its requests will include requests for evidence; continuations to request evidence (N-14); notices of intent to deny; notices of intent to revoke; notices of intent to rescind and notices of intent to terminate regional investment centers; and filing date requirements for Form I-290B, Notice of Appeal or Motion.

The USCIS can issue a maximum of 65,000 H-1B work visas every year to highly skilled foreign workers. It can issue an additional 20,000 H-1B visas to those highly skilled foreign workers who have obtained masters or higher degrees from an American educational institution.

Under the existing law, the US can issue a maximum of 1,40,000 employment-based green cards every year with a per country cap of seven per cent.

More than 33 million Americans have lost their jobs in the last two months due to the Coronavirus pandemic that has brought the US economy to a standstill.

(With PTI inputs)