Leaders on Capitol Hill are drafting legislation that would make significant changes to U.S. immigration policy. Part of that reform is a likely increase in the number of coveted H-1B visas, which employers need to sponsor highly skilled foreign workers they recruit in areas such as science, engineering and computer programming.
Rush to the starting line
Every April, employers scramble to secure a limited number of available H-1B visas; the current cap is 85,000, including 20,000 set aside for foreign graduates with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.
This year, winners of the visas were decided by lottery for the first time since 2008. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reported receiving “a sufficient number of H-1B petitions to reach the statutory cap” in just five days.
With about 124,000 applications and only 85,000 visas to give, USCIS conducted two computer-generated lotteries on April 7. The first was for the 20,000 H-1B slots reserved for those with advanced degrees. Anyone who lost that lottery was given a shot at one of the remaining 65,000 visas.
The surge in applications is a sign that the economy is on the upswing. But it’s also a sign that the demand for highly skilled workers is greatly outpacing the supply of H-1B visas. In fact, the demand has exceeded the supply every year since 2003, when the cap was brought down from 195,000 per year to its current level.
With more H-1B visas to go around, small and medium-sized businesses would be able to compete with larger companies for talent. They’d also have a better chance at getting a return on the time and effort it takes to go through the application process. Larger organizations often have headcount specialized in and dedicated to doing so.
And if they don’t make the cut this year, bigger businesses are flexible enough that they can wait longer to bring on a foreign worker. Smaller firms might have an immediate staffing need or one that pops up later in the year. Trading an all-at-once release of the visas for a periodical offering could help, but the legislation being drafted by Congress may not include such a provision.
A greater number of H-1B visas would also keep the U.S. competitive in the worldwide job market. Among other countries, Canada recently modified its immigration program to attract more global talent, specifically “innovative immigrant entrepreneurs who will create new jobs and spur economic growth.” A similar start-up visa program has been suggested in the U.S. but, again, may not be part of Washington’s plans.
Why not hire American?
Some say increasing the number of H-1B visas would hamper the hiring of domestic talent. But because the visas are so pricy and difficult to obtain, it’s reasonable to think that if companies could find proper candidates here at home, they would.
And because the visas last for three years and can be renewed for another three, they offer businesses a degree of stability. But turnover can be costly, so why not go for a domestic candidate with a great chance of sticking with the company for at least six years?
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