Auto suppliers' need for high-tech talent has collided with the red-hot political issue of immigration, complicating the challenge of finding workers to develop cutting-edge technologies.
Suppliers say the Trump administration, as it studies changes to visa policy, has slowed processing of H-1B visas that suppliers often use to bring "specialty occupation" professionals into the U.S. for three or six years.
"There's just a lot of uncertainty," said Christi Downes, vice president for global operations and automotive sales at Harman International. "We have seen a slowing of the process."
A spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services confirmed that applications are being more strictly reviewed to increase "the integrity and efficiency of the immigration petition process."
The slowdown comes as suppliers play a key role in developing technologies that automakers want in fields such as autonomous driving, connectivity, electrification and cybersecurity. Suppliers say foreign workers on H-1B visas are needed to keep those projects moving.
"These requests for evidence have been in a crescendo," said Ana Ojeda, supervisor for U.S. international mobility at Continental Corp. "This is the norm right now. It's more difficult than it was before."
The tougher approach is in keeping with an administration goal of ensuring visas go to a limited pool of workers. In 2017, President Donald Trump said H-1B visas "should include only the most skilled and highest-paid applicants, and should never, ever be used to replace American workers."
Preston Huennekens, a researcher at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, said the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services "has certainly been tightening the H-1B program." The agency, which checks employer applications, has increased requests for evidence and workplace audits, he said.
Huennekens criticized H-1B visas as allowing employers "to pay a little less than you would pay an American." But significant changes to the program are unlikely, he said.