5 Feb

Transfinder in the News - Visa changes could affect Capital Region's Tech Valley

From The Times Union
By Mallory Moench
Tuesday, February 5, 2019 

A decade ago, the head of a Schenectady-based tech company realized that he couldn't keep his business running by hiring only U.S. citizens.

"There are many foreign students who are here, they speak perfect English, and we want to hire them," said Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder Corporation, which provides logistics software to cities, schools and adult care facilities. "We need more talent and technology people, that was the number one reason. We did this because it's near impossible to hire candidates in this region in that category."

Civitella's company has sponsored between 15 to 20 employees, mostly software developers, under the H-1B visa program that gives highly skilled foreign workers a three-year visa, a chance to extend it to six years, and a path to apply for a green card. The company, which employs close to 85 in its Schenectady headquarters, is currently assisting one individual to get a visa.

This year, a federal change prioritizing H-1B visa applicants who have a graduate degree from a U.S. higher education institution in line with President Donald Trump's "Buy American, Hire American" executive order could affect Capital Region employers — for better and worse.

Immigration law caps H-1B visas annually at 65,000. Employees at higher education institutions, non-profit or governmental research organizations, and up to 20,000 workers who earned a graduate degree in the U.S. are exempt from the cap.

Employers looking to sponsor H-1B visas file petitions with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) starting on April 1. The number of petitions filed is always over and above the cap. USCIS data shows that the number of petitions filed where the potential employee had an advanced degree alone peaked at close to 100,000 in fiscal year 2019.

Previously, USCIS selected H-1B petitions subject to the advanced degree exemption and then conducted a lottery to fill the regular H-1B cap. Last week, though, USCIS announced it will switch the order — first selecting petitions for all applicants, then selecting to fill the advanced degree exemption.

The agency said in a press release that changing the order "will likely increase the number of petitions for beneficiaries with a master's or higher degree from a U.S. institution of higher education to be selected." They estimated 5,340 more workers with American graduate degrees would get visas.

"Each year, immigration benefits are attainable for many law-abiding individuals legitimately seeking greater opportunity, prosperity, and security as newly entrusted members of society, and to this end USCIS takes great pride in helping these dreams become a reality," USCIS spokesman Michael Bars said an emailed statement. "USCIS is committed to rule-of-law and merit-based immigration reforms that benefit U.S. workers, the American people, and our society to the greatest extent possible."

The agency also introduced a new electronic registration requirement for petitioners.
The proposed changes, which will go into effect on April 1, draw mixed reactions from local immigration attorneys and employers.

For some Capital Region Tech Valley employers like Transfinder, the change could be positive. The company's leadership said in the past they have prioritized candidates with master's degrees, so their potential employees should have a better chance of getting a visa.

However, Civitella and his chief operating officer, Joe Messia, said they wanted to see the cap expanded and the process simplified. Messia said that over the past year, for every petition filed, the government requested further evidence — which added more time and money to an already intensive and expensive process that can cost up to $10,000 if the company sponsors an employee's green card.

"The entire area here would benefit significantly if we would just increase the cap. There's not an increase of citizens going into this field," Civitella said.

Elsewhere in Capital Region's Tech Valley, GlobalFoundries sponsored 258 people on H-1B visas at its Malta foundry and 7 in Albany last year, according to Department of Labor data aggregated online. A spokesman did not have any comment to offer on the topic.

Pharmaceutical company Regeneron employed 7 on H-1B visas in Rensselaer last year. A spokeswoman said that the company didn't expect the change would have a major impact on them.

General Electric had 16 sponsored visa employees in Niskayuna in 2018.

"We continue to monitor developments regarding this policy," spokesman Todd Alhart said. "In general, GE uses the H-1B program as it is intended – to hire the best and brightest engineers and scientists, and employ the best global talent in the US."

Leonard D'Arrigo, employment attorney at Albany-based Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, worries the change will hit sectors like accounting and architecture that don't typically require master's degrees or healthcare that depends on doctors who often complete their medical education overseas before looking for a job in the U.S.

"The problem is that simply possessing a master's or higher degree from a U.S. institution cannot serve as the sole means by which the value of an individual might be measured, particularly given the varying needs and minimum educational requirements of the U.S. industries and job sectors that depend on H-1B professionals to drive growth and satisfy consumer demand," L'Arrigo said. "It's been a chronic problem locally."

As Capital Region employers watch and wait for the changes to come down, Civitella is one pushing to raise the visa cap to keep his company running.

"They aren't individuals who are taking any U.S. citizens' jobs," Civitella said. "We are behind in tech in this country. We need more people here."