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How the H-1B visa changed America—and impacted the world

Tara Anand for Quartz
Published Last updated

💡 The Big Idea

Can the H-1B visa—the primary way the US attracts high-skilled talent—survive American nationalism? Here’s the TLDR to our field guide on the status of the H-1B.

🤔Here’s Why

1️⃣ The H-1B visa has had an indelible impact on the United States.

2️⃣  The much-sought after program is an engine for US economic growth.

3️⃣  Experts say the visa needs to be reformed, not restricted.

4️⃣ If not, America’s H-1B visa loss could be India’s gain.

5️⃣ The upcoming election will be a referendum on how the US values foreign workers.

📝 The Details

1️⃣ The H-1B visa has had an indelible impact on the US.

Many consider the H-1B visa to be the pipeline that helped America build the world’s biggest tech hub in Silicon Valley. Over the last 30 years, beneficiaries of the visa, now numbering in the millions, have filled a massive skills gap in critical fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

But the visa category has come under immense criticism. Decades after its creation by one Republican president, another Republican president has targeted it as part of an anti-immigration clampdown. Over the last four years, the Trump administration has capitalized on anger towards foreign workers, and accusations that the program allows companies to hire cheap labor from abroad, to make it harder for people to get the visa.

2️⃣ The much-sought after program is an engine for US economic growth.

Data show that despite the Trump administration’s clampdown, the H-1B’s charm holds steadfast. Thousands more people apply than there are visas available. This has led to a cottage industry of people claiming to be able to help improve the chances of a successful application—from immigration firms to a 500-year old “H-1B temple” that attracts scores of devotees.

While the program has undoubtedly been misused in some instances, research has shown that overall it has also led to more work, higher wages, and better prospects for US workers. Proponents of the program also point out that foreign workers contribute billions of dollars in taxes, as well as to Social Security and Medicare, to the benefit of all.

3️⃣ Experts say the visa needs to be reformed, not restricted.

The H-1B visa is not perfect. But experts say reforming it—instead of just restricting it—could actually boost productivity and innovation.

The program “has resulted in abuses—and in many cases the displacement—of US workers,” writes Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the Policy Migration Institute. “Yet there are smart, implementable fixes that can be made to prevent such abuses and repoint the H-1B program in ways that would go much further toward advancing US economic and competitiveness interests—to the benefit of US workers—than the broad and blunt reforms advanced by the administration.”

4️⃣ America’s H-1B visa loss could be India’s gain.

In the meantime, highly skilled, young workers from India—the biggest group of H-1B recipients—are abandoning the American dream and moving home. The technical jobs they held in the US may follow them.

With more restrictive policies in place, the jobs H-1B holders now have will ship out to where the talent is. In the event of a migratory reversal, India can only stand to gain. But how much India gains will depend on how well it can accommodate the influx of returning professionals.

5️⃣ The upcoming US election will be a referendum on the value of foreign workers.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden have vastly different plans for immigration reform in the US, including the future of the H-1B program. But neither of them can fully dictate the terms. “Much would depend on the makeup of Congress after the election,” said Mark Davies, global chairman at global immigration-focused law firm Davies & Associates, “as well as public opinion in the aftermath of Covid.”

The H-1B may be old and flawed, but it still remains the main vehicle for foreign-born talent to enter the US. In many ways, the upcoming election is a referendum on whether US citizens feel that they benefit from that foreign talent, or not.