Trump’s Proposed Revisions to the H-1B Visa System Could Make Staffing More Difficult for Ad Agencies

By Patrick Coffee 

Donald Trump famously succeeded because, according to one oft-referenced piece in the Atlantic, the press took him literally but not seriously while his supporters took him seriously but not literally. They knew he would not be able to institute a registry of every single Islamic person in the United States. They just liked the idea for some reason.

Many ad industry executives are now hoping that they don’t have to take Trump literally on another much-discussed campaign promise regarding an overhaul of the H-1B visa system. It was designed in the ’60s to focused on highly-skilled workers, and it’s currently limited to 85,000 temporary non-immigrants each year. Each H-1B lasts six years and requires employees to leave the country for a year before applying again, but many of those who use it go on to become permanent residents thanks to sponsorship from their employers.

The industries most affected by this program are tech and consulting: IBM, Accenture, Chase, Amazon, Deloitte and Google are currently among the top 20 companies ranked by the number of H-1B visas granted annually.


But advertising also relies heavily on the system: according to a report based on companies’ own responses, approximately 3,000 agency employees got hired through the system this year alone to work in the U.S. at an average salary of $92,000. You all know this because many creatives and others at major American agencies come from Brazil, Sweden, England or Australia.*

For reference, here is a handy guide for marketers looking to “overcome H-1B visa challenges” in the interest of working stateside.

Judging by his rhetoric, Trump does not much care for immigration in general. But his position on H-1B is less clear; as reported in The Washington Post, he vacillated during the campaign, initially suggesting that he would reduce the number of such visas available, increase the “prevailing wage” to eliminate the appeal of outsourcing or require that companies hire a given number of workers from “the domestic pool of the unemployed” before turning overseas lest they risk some unspecified penalty.

This suggestion overlooks the fact that these visas are specifically designed for those who have degrees and skills that underemployed Americans almost always lack, but Trump has never been big on logic or consistency. He later contradicted himself by implying that Mark Zuckerberg should hire as many immigrants as he wants as long as Facebook uses the visa system properly after initially arguing that fewer H-1Bs would lead to a more diverse Silicon Valley. (At one point he said, “I’m softening the position because we have to have talented people in this country.”)

Certain businesses do, in fact, abuse H-1B. As reported by the New York Times and others, outsourcing companies like Tata (and Deloitte, and Accenture) often do this by “flooding” the system with so many applications that they end up winning a disproportionate share. And the outsourcing industry model would not be viable were these providers not able to offer such services at lower rates than domestic companies.

As one reader noted, many creatives also use the O-1 visa system, which caters to individuals with “extraordinary ability” in the arts or sciences and disproportionately affects California residents. Trump does not appear to have mentioned O-1 specifically in any speech, though one attorney told Bloomberg after the election that “I have a client who was looking at an O-1 visa … this is not the greatest time to be coming to the U.S.”

The tech industry started flipping out about this months ago. Pretty much every major tech company wants to expand the visa system, but Jeff Sessions, who is Trump’s pick for Attorney General, wants to curtail it. If he were to succeed, the outsourcing and tech sectors might take a big hit. By the same token, ad agencies looking to staff their teams with “foreign” talent would almost certainly have a harder time doing so.

We reached out to a few parties within the industry regarding this post, and all either declined to comment or said that they are waiting to see what the incoming administration eventually decides to do, given that anti-immigration sentiments were one of the key factors in the election.

*This potential policy shift doesn’t affect Australians for one peculiar reason. During the Bush administration, our country created a special class of visa called E-3 that only applies to them, primarily because they were one of our few consistent allies in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Australians alone can compete for the 10,500 annual E-3 visas … which is why it’s currently less risky for your agency to hire a creative director from Sydney than from pretty much anywhere else in the world.