Federal judge strikes down changes to visa program, a win for universities

Restrictions on the H-1B “specialty worker” visa program from were struck down on Dec. 1. The new rules were opposed by Yale and other universities.
Yale campus aerial

(Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

A federal district judge has invalidated sweeping restrictions the Trump administration sought to impose on the H-1B “specialty worker” visa program that Yale and other research universities rely on to hire foreign faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and associate research scientists.

In contesting the rule changes, Yale and other universities argued that the measures would have needlessly disrupted vital research programs, limited their ability to hire highly skilled workers, and unfairly harmed current visa holders who are crucial members of campus communities across the country. 

We’re pleased that the court has vacated these misguided rules, allowing the many talented H-1B visa holders within the Yale community to continue their important work uninterrupted,” said Pericles Lewis, Yale’s vice president for global strategy. “This decision will allow us to keep bringing highly skilled people to campus from across the globe to pursue exciting research, share their ideas, and enrich our community.”

The ruling was issued Dec. 1 in Chamber of Commerce v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a lawsuit that business groups and universities — including Cornell and Stanford — brought challenging two abrupt rule changes affecting more than 580,000 foreign professionals working in the country under the H-1B visa program. Yale joined more than two dozen colleges and universities, including the other Ivy League schools, in filing an amicus brief supporting the lawsuit. 

The rule changes, announced on Oct. 8, 2020 by the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Labor, sought to limit eligibility for H-1B visas by redefining what constitutes a specialty occupation, and were designed to discourage use of the visa program by disproportionally increasing salaries required for H-1B holders.

The amicus brief argued that the rule changes would disrupt research programs that “drive the nation’s scientific progress, public health, and economic vitality” and would “irreparably harm” universities’ ability to employ highly skilled foreign workers for critical teaching and research positions in a broad range of fields, including information technology, bioengineering, health care, and public policy. 

The new [r]ules, designed to substantially restrict who will be eligible for visas, will materially disrupt academic institutions’ planning for curricula and research programs, including basic, applied, and clinical research funded by the federal government, and are fundamentally unfair to the individuals and their families who have relied upon decades of well-settled immigration law to contribute to the betterment of our society through their scholarship and research in the United States,” the brief stated.  

In seeking to implement the rule changes, the Trump administration bypassed the 30-day public notice and comment period required under the Administrative Procedure Act, citing the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as justification. 

In striking down the measures, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White ruled that the Trump administration unlawfully sidestepped standard rulemaking procedures.

The administration’s attempt to invoke COVID-19 as justification for displacing this program was not justified by either the facts nor the conduct of the administration,” White stated. “Rather, there’s every indication that this was a use of pretext to adopt a policy that the administration had said it had planned to do for years, long before COVID-19.”

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Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-980-2222