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Tahmina Watson is an immigration attorney and startup visa advocate.

A clandestine crackdown on a program big companies use to bring international talent to the U.S. is underway, according to Seattle immigration attorney Tahmina Watson. It has to do with the H-1B visa, which helps employers hire foreign-born workers for high-skilled, high-paid jobs.

“In the last two months there’s been a seismic shift in how visas are being approved,” she said during an event at Remitly’s Seattle office Wednesday. The company convened members of the tech community and advocates for a discussion on immigration reform, tied to broader protests and events across the country.

Watson said that there “will likely be about 40 percent denials in this year’s H-1B cap and that’s going to have a big shape in how next year’s visa activities happen.”

“Businesses are going to be impacted quite drastically and if it’s not apparent yet, it will be apparent next year,” she said.

Watson represents corporate clients that use the H-1B and she is the author of The Startup Visa: Key to Job Growth and Economic Prosperity in America. She has been witnessing the decline in H-1B approvals first hand — and she’s not the only one.

Immigration attorney Lola Zakharova. (Photo by Cass Redstone)

Lola Zakharova, another Seattle immigration attorney who works with corporate clients, told GeekWire “the USCIS started challenging H-1Bs which would have no problem being approved in the past.”

She said the immigration agency is rejecting more applications, claiming that they are not really “specialty occupations” or the wage level is not commensurate with the complexity of the role.

In April, President Donald Trump issued an executive order titled “Buy American, Hire American,” asking the Departments of Labor, Justice, Homeland Security and State to suggest policies to reduce fraud and abuse of the H-1B visa. Zakharova says the spike in H-1B rejections is tied to this executive order.

“The challenges are equally frustrating for employees and employers who are anxious about the uncertainty of the outcome,” she said. “The employees fear having to leave the country and lives they have built in the U.S., and employers losing their valuable talent which may stall projects and contracts. This is not a healthy environment.”

But not everyone in the tech community is so bearish on the executive order. Many have called for reforms to curb abuse of the H-1B by so-called “outsourcing firms,” companies that flood the program’s lottery system with as many applications as possible to win a high percentage of visas and then contract workers’ services out to other companies

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said he welcomed reforms to the program in an interview after Trump issued the executive order.

“I think the H-1B review is … a good thing because I think every country should look at their immigration policy and in this case, it’s about American competitiveness,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s about high-skill labor and a review that says there is the right use of [the H-1B] and misuses of it and we promote more the right uses of it, all the better for American competitiveness. At least at Microsoft, when we think about H-1B, it’s mostly about high-skilled labor that allows us, an American company, to be globally competitive.”

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