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Foreign workers worry about restricted visas under a Trump administration

President-elect Donald Trump's administration could make it more difficult for U.S. companies to hire foreign workers under the H-1B visa program, which is widely used in the tech industry. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Among those in Southern California concerned about their future under a President-elect Donald Trump's administration are high-skilled foreign workers on H-1B visas that allow them to work in the U.S. temporarily.

Some are worried enough to apply for green cards so they can remain in the U.S. permanently, one immigration attorney said, even though that process can take years.

The H-1B visa program allows tens of thousands to work in industries where there's demand for hard-to-find skills, including knowledge in technology, engineering, science and math.

While Trump has put out mixed messages on the H-1B visas, he has called for restricting U.S. companies from hiring foreign workers. His pick for attorney general, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, has long criticized the H-1B program and sought to curtail it. 

Both Trump and Sessions view the program as one that takes jobs away from Americans.

Software engineer Priyanka Naik is one of those working in the U.S. on an H-1B visa. She came to the U.S. in 2009 as a student and now lives in Santa Barbara, where she works for a software company.

Naik was surprised by last month’s elections results. “I never expected Donald Trump to win," she said — and now she's nervous.

“When the election happened, I was a little concerned about what would happen with H-1B workers," Naik said.

The H-1B program is capped  at 65,000 visas per year, with an additional 20,000 visas for workers with advanced degrees from U.S. schools. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data, more than three-fourths of the annual visas go to workers from Asia, the majority of them from India and China. 

There were 275,317 H-1B petitions approved by the federal government in fiscal year 2015, including renewals. The visas are granted in three-year increments generally up to six years, although extensions are possible.

One reason some say the program is popular with companies is there’s not enough domestic talent to go around, especially in the technology industry, said Karthick Ramarkishnan, a political scientist with University of California, Riverside.

“The research I’ve seen suggests that even if there is that pool of talent, many of those workers are not necessarily trained in the latest technologies," Ramakrishnan said.

Reducing employers’ access to trained foreign workers could push some multinational companies to limit U.S. operations and expand overseas, he said.

The H-1B program has many critics, among them John Miano, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates restricting immigration. Miano, who co-authored a book critical of H-1B, said there are enough U.S. workers to fill available jobs  and that companies abuse the visa program to save money.

"What these companies are doing is they are taking their American workers and replacing them with low-wage, H-1B workers," Miano said.

Since the election, Los Angeles immigration attorney Catherine Haight said she’s seen a new trend among companies that employ H-1B workers.

“We’ve received many new cases from our clients who are employers saying that we now want to sponsor our employees for a green card," Haight said.

A green card authorizes someone to permanently live and work in the United States.

Naik, the software engineer, applied for a green card before the election, not anticipating the results, but said she’s glad she did.

That doesn’t mean she’s out of the woods; it takes years to be approved for a green card. 

Meantime, Naik worries about her job status if her company is affected by any restrictions that could prompt layoffs.

“Even my H-1B status, or being in the green card process, is contingent on the fact that I am working in this company," she said.