The administration of United States President Donald Trump on Tuesday announced significant changes to the H-1B visa programme for high-skilled workers, as it narrowed the eligibility criteria for applicants and raised the wages American companies would have to pay to hire foreign workers.

The government said the rules would help cushion the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

The changes introduced by the Departments of Labor and Homeland Security, which take effect in 60 days, would also shorten the length of visas for certain contract workers, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The new directives would tighten immigration policies under the Trump administration, which had first committed to overhauling the existing visa programme in 2017. It would also disproportionately affect Indians, who received as much as 70% of the 85,000 H-1B visas issued annually by the US government in the past five years. The visa program has been widely used by tech firms to bring in engineers and other skilled workers, many of whom are Indians.

Tuesday’s rules require the foreign workers to have a degree in the “specialty occupation” they apply for, instead of any college degree. This means a visa applicant must have a college degree in the specific field in which he or she is looking to work in the US.

Besides this, the required wage level for entry-level workers would rise to the 45th percentile of their profession’s distribution, from the current requirement of the 17th percentile. The requirement for the highest-skilled workers would rise to the 95th percentile, from the 67th percentile.

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The department said the rules would ensure that employing H-1B workers “will not worsen the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 and adversely affect wages and working conditions of similarly employed US”. The pandemic’s economic impact is an “obvious and compelling fact” that justified “good cause to issue this IFR”, the department said.

“We have entered an era in which economic security is an integral part of homeland security,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement. “Put simply, economic security is homeland security. In response, we must do everything we can within the bounds of the law to make sure the American worker is put first.”

Last week, a federal judge in San Francisco had blocked Trump from enforcing a temporary ban on a large number of work permits, including the H-1B visa. Trump had on June 22 signed an executive order to suspend several categories of foreign work visas till the end of 2020.

Apart from the H-1B visa, other visas that were banned were H-2B visas for non-agricultural seasonal workers, J visas for cultural exchanges, and L visas for managers and other key employees of multinational corporations.