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US suspends 'premium processing' for H-1B visas

Heavily used by tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook, it let applicants receive an answer faster for a fee.
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In a move that could restrict access to foreign engineers, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced tonight that it will "temporarily suspend premium processing for all H-1B petitions." In a statement, the department said this suspension "may" last six months, and pitched it as an administrative move to speed up all applications. The suspension takes effect April 3rd (the day applications open) nixing a $1,225 option that allowed highly skilled workers to find out if their application for an H-1B visa is approved in as little as a month.

According to a USCIS report, in 2014 about 65 percent of the applications were for computer-related jobs. Because of an 85,000 annual cap on the number of visas awarded, which results in a lottery and delays after applications pass the limit in under a week. Even for workers inside the US, changing jobs or traveling outside the country could be affected while they wait to find out the result.

Financial Times quotes a lawyer saying that "close to 100 percent" of applications from companies like Microsoft utilize the option. Without it, the wait for a decision could linger for months into August or September.

Previously, Donald Trump has claimed he will "end forever" the use of H-1Bs for cheaper labor, and his advisor has suggested an issue with the number of Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley, increasing tension over the program. While Mark Zuckerberg's tech lobbying group FWD.us has sought to expand the program, US senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), sent a letter this morning asking Trump to deliver on his campaign promise to crack down on H-1B visas.

Whatever the actual impact, the USCIS reasoning for suspending the program is interesting -- back in 2001 when it was introduced, INS officials said it was needed to help clear the backlog of pending foreign high-tech worker visas. Now officials claim it's being suspended for the same reason.

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