As businesses began applying for H-1B visas this month, President Donald Trump’s administration sent out a warning: The popular program will see heavier scrutiny going forward.

Like other visas, H-1Bs allow domestic companies to bring foreign laborers into the country. For years, the program has been extremely popular among companies in the tech industry.

Those who use the program claim it fills a measurable skills gap among domestic workers in the United States, while critics say some companies abuse the program to bypass American workers in favor of foreign laborers who will do the same work for lower wages.

Each year, 85,000 new, highly skilled workers enter the U.S. as part of the H-1B program through what is essentially a lottery. The application process for FY 2018 began April 3, and like the past four years, the cap on the number of new applications was reached within five days.

While businesses in states like California, Texas and New York have typically employed the most H-1B workers, companies in Alabama have continued to increase their use of the program. In 2016, there were 2,053 H-1B visa holders employed in Alabama including hundreds in Mobile.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a dependence, but we do have several major industries in the area that need foreign labor from time to time for a variety of reasons,” Anna L. Scully, a Mobile immigration and employment attorney, said. “Most international companies in the area need to transfer employees from their home countries because those employees have specialized skills.”

As an example, Scully said if a company like Airbus needed to bring an employee from the United Kingdom to the U.S. to fix an issue on an assembly line at its facility in Mobile, the H-1B program would be one of the company’s easiest and fastest options.

With more than 2,000 visa holders and an average salary of $80,000, Alabama is ranked 35th among U.S. states employing H-1B workers. (myvisajobs.com)

According to data compiled by myvisajobs.com, more than 100 Alabama companies reported employing four or more H-1B workers in 2016. The state’s most prolific user has routinely been the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which employed 217 H-1B workers last year.

Locally, H-1B visa holders are employed at companies like VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering, Evonik, Infirmary Health Group, Odemkumpu, MAAS Aviation Brookley, Thyssenkrupp, the University of South Alabama and many others.

However, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been a vocal critic of the program. Sessions has sponsored unsuccessful legislation aimed at reducing the annual number of H-1B applicants, and during the Trump campaign even alluded to scrapping the program entirely.

“We shouldn’t be bringing in people where we’ve got workers,” Sessions said at a stop in Iowa. “There are a number of ways to fix it. I don’t think the republic would collapse if it was totally eliminated.”

According to Scully, the Trump administration addressed possible changes to the H-1B program in a batch of early memos that leaked from the oval office in January.

While at least two of those have since become signed executive orders, Trump has taken little to no official action that would drastically change the popular visa program.

However, on April 3 — the day the 2017 application process began — two federal agencies gave notice to businesses that the H-1B program is still very much on the administration’s radar.

A screenshot of the first message displayed on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. (USCIS.gov)

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which manages the program, announced a series of new measures to “deter and detect H-1B visa fraud and abuse.”

“The H-1B visa program should help U.S. companies recruit highly skilled foreign nationals when there is a shortage of qualified workers in the country,” the agency wrote in a press release. “Yet, too many American workers who are as qualified, willing and deserving to work in these fields have been ignored or unfairly disadvantaged.”

While USCIS has conducted inspections of businesses that employ H-1B workers since 2009, it now plans to more closely scrutinize certain businesses, including those “with information that can’t be verified through commercially available data,” those who have a “high ratio of H-1B workers,” and those whose H-1B employees “work off-site at another company or location.”

The same day, Sessions’ Department of Justice said there would be an enhanced focus on detecting and prosecuting visa fraud within the H-1B program.

An official statement also cautioned businesses that the laws protecting foreign workers from discrimination can and would be used to prosecute those discriminating against U.S. workers.

Those announcements shouldn’t have too much impact on Scully and the businesses she represents locally. Earlier this year, though, she told Lagniappe there was anxiety in the business community over the changes to H-1B mentioned in those draft executive orders.

“There are real enemies of several of these visa programs in Washington. Because right or wrong, they’ve gotten the reputation of depressing wages and depriving U.S. workers of lucrative jobs,” she said. “There have been talks about increasing the scrutiny on these types programs to find ways to throw up more roadblocks, but it’s difficult for most employers to plan around the visa process as it is.”

Even if businesses in Mobile aren’t directly affected, Scully said implementing changes to the H-1B program elsewhere might slow down the application process across the board, adding that a one- or two-month delay could have a “gigantic impact on production” for a company.

As one of the “least stressful” visa options available to international businesses, Scully said, adding too many hurdles could negatively impact the foreign investment Mobile has enjoyed over the past decade — something the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce also is concerned about.

Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce President Bill Sisson. (mobilechamber.com)

In February, Chamber President Bill Sisson told Lagniappe the “H-1B, H-2B and L-1 visas [were] so important to a number of professionals” locally, whether they’re a highly skilled worker employed by a global company or part of the seasonal foreign labor many hotels and restaurants rely on in heavy tourism areas.

“We have such an international business presence here. In many cases, they’re bringing foreign nationals to these facilities for a certain amount of time — especially when they’re getting a new business established,” Sisson said. “It’s important for them to be able to do so legally and relatively quickly.”