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H-1B Visa Lottery to Determine Fate for Thousands of Tech Workers

  • Ira Mellman
  • Terry Wing

The U.S. government has held its annual lottery for H-1B visas and the lucky 85,000 winners (and their employers) will be notified soon.

The winners, from among more than 172,000 foreign citizen applicants, will be granted three-year visas to work for companies who have already agreed to sponsor them.

Most of these potential workers are already here. More often than not, they are recent graduates from U.S. universities with a bachelor’s degree or higher in technical fields requiring a highly-specialized knowledge.

Typically, these specialty fields include IT, engineering, and science.

The program has been in existence since Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990. The law currently limits the number of visas to 85,000 each year.

“This year we met the Congressionally-mandated cap within the first week; last year we met it within the first week,” said spokesman Bill Wright of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). He notes it has become more competitive every year.

Still, Wright said potential foreign employees should not be discouraged.

“I would prepare well in advance – and employers should be prepared as well,” he said.

The next deadline is April 1, 2015, and Wright advises a good place to start is the USCIS website.

U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch thinks the program falls short. He contends even more foreign workers should be given visas.

“Here we are four months into the year, yet we are closing the door on highly-skilled foreign workers, many of whom are American-trained. And then we push them out of our country because of stupid laws,” Hatch said in an interview with VOA.

“These are people that we educated here, who want to stay here and work in their fields of expertise. They want to help American companies grow the American economy,” he added.

Hatch said U.S.-based companies tell him there is a huge need for graduates in science, technology, engineering and math – the so-called STEM fields.

“What you see and hear from the tech community is that there are not enough Americans trained and ready to fill these jobs," he said. "We can’t continue to hope that American companies won’t move these jobs overseas.”

Hatch has introduced the Senate's bipartisan Immigration Innovation Act of 2013, a law that would increase the cap in the H-1B program to as many as 300,000 foreign workers.

“Our proposal will allow them to stay here, and down the line – if I had my way – give them the opportunity to apply for citizenship,” he said. “If I had my way, we’d be much more open to immigration. There’s a lot of reason for us to do this.”

Because employers may petition for permanent residence for their H-1B employees, the visa is sometimes described as a “bridge to immigration” that will keep the smartest foreign STEM workers in the U.S. permanently and thus, the argument goes, improve the nation’s competitiveness.

A number of studies dispute the claims from industry that Hatch cites about the shortage of American STEM graduates. David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, offers figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Education to show that America has more high-tech college graduates than needed to fill high-tech jobs.

So who’s right? The arguments suggest it all depends on how you crunch the numbers. The business-friendly Wall Street Journal provides some believable insight, noting high-tech businesses want to continue to staff their operations “with Indian expatriates who earn significantly less than their American counterparts.”

VOA found more than a dozen studies that charge the visa program serves as a subsidy for corporations, paying their H-1B employees less than the prevailing wage required by law.

Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is blunt in his criticism of the H-1B visa program. He calls it a program to hire foreign workers rather than Americans.

“Rather than keeping jobs from leaving our shores, the H-1B does the opposite, by facilitating offshoring and providing employers with cheap, temporary labor – while reducing job opportunities for American high-tech workers in the process,” said Hira in a 2013 blog he wrote for the Economic Policy Institute.

At look at the top 10 H-1B employers in 2013 shows a list comprising some of the largest IT consulting firms in the world.

Further examination shows most of their employees are based in India.

Whether the H-1B visa program is good for the United States is a matter of opinion. But the large number of foreign workers wishing to obtain an H-1B visa does argue for the huge desire to work in the United States.

Being about to learn a job in the United States, then have the option of applying for citizenship or take the job back home in a few years is a pretty good deal.

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