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Employers Seeking H-1B Visas See More Scrutiny, Fewer Approvals

June 4, 2019, 4:39 PM

The chance of getting approved for an H-1B is continuing to decline as the Trump administration continues its crackdown on the specialty occupation visa program.

New data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services echo figures released earlier in the year that show a decline in H-1B approval rates across the board, although information technology consulting businesses appear to be taking a particularly big hit.

The increasing difficulty of getting the visas approved has caused anxiety among employers, which say the workers are vital to their businesses. The USCIS, however, says it’s protecting U.S. workers by ensuring that the visas only go to those who meet the requirements under the law.

Through March, the overall approval rate for fiscal year 2019 stands at 79.4%, lower than any of the prior fiscal years dating to FY 2015. That number may tick up by the end of September, as monthly approval rates increased to 87% in March from a low of 72.7% in November 2018, according to recently released data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The November approval rate was the lowest of any month dating to October 2014.

More Scrutiny, More Denials

More telling is an increase in requests from the USCIS to provide additional evidence proving visa eligibility, coupled with a decline in the rate of H-1B approvals after such a request is sent.

Approvals after receiving a request for evidence, known as an RFE, have consistently been lower than both overall approval rates and approval rates without an RFE. There’s been a steady decline in the post-RFE approval rate for the past several years, with an even more pronounced decline starting in FY 2018.

So far in FY 2019, the agency has approved only 60.5% of H-1B petitions that received an RFE. That includes a 56.2% approval rate in February 2019, the lowest monthly rate so far.

Approval rates for H-1B petitions that had received an RFE declined to 62.3% in FY 2018, from a high of 83.2% in FY 2015.

At the same time, the percentage of H-1B petitions that receive an RFE is going up, from a low of 20.8% in FY 2016 to 38% in FY 2018 and 48% so far in FY 2019. The highest monthly rate was in November 2018, when 66.1% of completed H-1B petitions had an RFE.

Change in Direction?

The USCIS has made a mission of scrutinizing H-1B visas since President Donald Trump issued his Buy American and Hire American executive order in April 2017. The order specifically directs federal immigration agencies to ensure that the visa isn’t being used to displace U.S. workers.

It remains to be seen whether the agency’s focus will shift following the June 1 departure of Director L. Francis Cissna.

Mark Koumans, who was appointed USCIS deputy director less than a month ago, is now the acting agency head until the Senate confirms a successor to Cissna. Former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli reportedly has been tapped for the position, but there’s been no official White House nomination.

Koumans is a career federal employee who has worked at Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security Department Office of Policy, and the Foreign Service.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at; Terence Hyland at