Caltech and USC Sue Federal Government Over New Visa Restrictions

The Tommy Trojan statue stands on the campus of the University of Southern California. (David McNew/Getty Images)

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Caltech and the University of Southern California are among plaintiffs suing the federal government for putting new restrictions on H1-B visas for highly skilled foreign workers.

The policy changes released by the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security earlier this month would make it harder for U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for jobs in specialized fields, like engineering, technology or healthcare.

The new rules propose a narrowed definition of "specialty work." Applicants will be expected to match a specific bachelor's degree to the position they're applying for. A general degree in engineering, for example, will no longer suffice — applicants will need a sub-specific degree, like in software or mechanical engineering.

The government is also raising minimum salaries for high-skilled international workers to rates some employers say they can't afford.

According to an interim final rule posted in the the Federal Register, the restrictions on the H-1B visa are intended to protect U.S. workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"...this rule will improve program integrity and better ensure that only petitioners who meet the statutory criteria for the H-1B classification are able to employ H-1B workers who are qualified for the classification. This, in turn, will protect jobs of U.S. workers as a part of responding to the national emergency, and facilitate the Nation's economic recovery," the rule reads.

Local universities, along with several business groups and other plaintiffs, are pushing back against these changes. In their complaint filed in the Federal District Court for Northern California, the plaintiffs argue the government's expectations would cause harm by forcing employers to terminate qualified workers.

The plaintiffs estimate that higher minimum salaries would cost $198.29 billion in extra costs on employers over ten years.

Miriam Feldblum is Executive Director of the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a coalition of university leaders and a plaintiff in the suit. She said the restrictions are particularly a threat to local research institutions.

"Science cannot be done without also attracting the best global talent in the world — something Caltech does so well," Feldblum said.

Feldblum believes the restrictions could discourage international students from applying to local universities, and she doesn't buy the rationale that H1-B visa holders are preventing U.S. workers from finding jobs during the pandemic.

"This is the time to open up our doors to talent and contributors," Feldblum said. "We need to jump start our economy, not dampen our economy."

The plaintiffs are asking a federal district judge to block the federal government's new policies. Meanwhile, the public comment period for the rule aimed at restricting H-1B visas is set to end Nov. 9.

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