U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director L. Francis Cissna recently circulated a memo that could quicken rejections of visa extensions and applications. Before this memo, officials would usually allow for applicants to submit more evidence if needed or allow for corrections in applications. Credit: Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The more high-skilled immigrants a firm has, the more innovative it is likely to be, according to new research. The study comes on the heels of a recent move by the Trump administration to quicken denials of high-skilled work visas.

The study found that companies with more highly skilled workers on H1-B visas were quicker to phase out older, obsolete products and replace them with newer products. This process, called product reallocation, is widely regarded as a measure of innovation, said Gaurav Khanna, a co-author of the report. Khanna is an assistant professor of economics at the University of California San Diego.

This has wider implications for the U.S. economy, said Khanna, whose study analyzed a decade’s worth of immigration and product rollout data by companies. It was published as a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

H-1B visas are temporary visas requested by American employers to bring foreigners with specific skills that are in short supply in the United States. To obtain this visa, a worker must have at least a bachelor’s degree. According to a report by the Department of Homeland Security last year, almost 70 percent of H1-B visas went to workers in computer-related occupations such as software engineering, web development and information technology. Workers of Indian origin accounted for almost 75 percent of these visas.

The work adds to the accumulating literature that shows that high-skilled immigrants have been contributing to U.S. economic growth and innovation, and that’s particularly true for high tech, said William Lincoln, an economist at Claremont McKenna College.

“I think they’re absolutely essential,” he said.

Lincoln co-wrote a study in 2010 that showed that a higher number of H-1B workers led to an increase in patents without displacing innovation by U.S. citizens. He said he finds a link between his study and this new study: More H-1Bs lead to more patents, and more patents lead to more products.

The Trump administration is under fire for its harsh policies targeting immigrants who cross the border illegally and asylum seekers, especially for separating children from their parents at the border. But the administration also has made things more difficult for high-skilled immigrants.

First, the administration tried to rollback an Obama executive order to allow some spouses of high-skilled immigrants on H-1B visas to work. A final decision has not yet been announced.

For decades, spouses of highly skilled workers on H-1B visas would enter the country as dependents and were granted an H4 visa. Most people on H4 visas were women and weren’t allowed to work. An Obama-era executive order allowed some spouses on H4s who were waiting for their green cards to work.

Without that executive order, thousands of women whose spouses held H-1B visas were likely out of luck if they wanted to work and had to put their careers on hold. The Cato Institute, a public policy think tank, recently projected that Indian immigrants with advanced degrees on one type of visa might have to wait 150 years for a green card.

In another change, the government circulated a memo July 13 that could speed up rejections of visa extensions and applications. Before this memo, officials usually would allow applicants to submit more evidence if needed or allow corrections.

The head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said the change would weed out illegitimate visa applications.

“Through this long overdue policy change, USCIS is restoring full discretion to our immigration officers to deny incomplete and ineligible applications and petitions submitted for immigration benefits,” said Director L. Francis Cissna. “Doing so will discourage frivolous filings and skeletal applications used to game the system, ensure our resources are not wasted, and ultimately improve our agency’s ability to efficiently and fairly adjudicate requests for immigration benefits in full accordance with our laws.”

Immigrants who have expiring H-1B visas but are in line to receive green cards usually can be granted unlimited three-year extensions. But stricter handling of issues with those visa extensions may lead to deportations, experts say. Although the memo does not target H-1B visas explicitly, immigration attorneys say people on this visa will be significantly affected.

Sinduja Rangarajan can be reached at srangrajan@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @cynduja.

Sinduja Rangarajan

Sinduja Rangarajan is a data reporter at Reveal, focusing on academic collaborations around workplace issues. She is the organizer of Mind to Mind, a symposium that brings academics and journalists together to foster conversation and partnerships. She is a former Google News Lab fellow. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.