Why is a third H-1B lottery under way?

Another shot.
Another shot.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Two lotteries later, the US has still not doled out its allotment of 85,000 H-1B visas for the year. It’s hoping that an unprecedented third draw to fill the quota.

The H-1B is a nonimmigrant visa, which allows workers to live and work in the US for up to six years. Usually, the number of applications far exceed the available visas. Typically, a candidate has a 30-40% chance of being selected, and many applicants are from India.

On Nov. 19, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) ran a third lottery to “select additional registrations” for fiscal year 2022, which starts on Oct. 1, 2022. Because employers did not complete applications for all the names drawn in the first two pools, and there are still hundreds of thousands of aspirants waiting in line, another round was warranted.

H1-B visas are still available

There are still spots to be claimed both in the 65,000 visas allocated to the general category, as well as in the 20,000 visas for applicants with masters or other higher degrees. USCIS did not specify how many visas are still up for grabs.

“Individuals with selected registrations will have their myUSCIS accounts updated to include a selection notice, which includes details about when and where to file,” the USCIS said. Applicants selected in this third lottery can file petitions between Nov. 22 and Feb. 23 next year.

In the current fiscal year, for which applications closed on March 31, USCIS received a total of 308,613 applications—the highest ever.

The department of homeland security (DHS) agency conducted an initial selection in March, the filing period for which ended on June 30. In July, an undisclosed number of employers winning the lottery did not pursue the slots. So USCIS conducted a rare second random selection from the existing registrations, the filing period for which ended on Nov. 3, 2021.

The ups and downs of H-1B demand

In April 2020, USCIS said it received more than 275,000 petitions for the 2021 fiscal year. But covid derailed several plans. Many international students were forced to return home. H-1B workers were laid off. No freedom to travel and a decline in activity in several industries, including consulting, put several workers in limbo. Besides foreign healthcare workers, few others were allowed entry into the US in the early days of the pandemic.

Restrictive immigration policies—ex-president Donald Trump halted H-1B applications for 10 months and tried to make the criteria for getting H-1Bs stricter last year—have made things worse.

Given that last year was plagued by uncertainty, employers may have also filed too many anticipatory applications that they eventually didn’t see through.

Are H-1B workers taking American jobs?

The 85,000 cap “is not a limit but a target—a demand that every one of the 85,000 jobs must be taken out of the American labor market and given to aliens,” David North, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank, argues.

North also says the DHS lottery is “easy and inexpensive to join.” Last year, the USCIS allowed employers to register electronically with a $10 fee, and only those who are selected would file all the paperwork and pay the full fee ranging between $1,710 and $6,460 per worker.

“If the department would simply run a lottery once, and let the unused slots remain unused it would open those jobs to citizens and green card holders,” North wrote. “A nice idea for the rest of us, but apparently a chamber of horrors to the government.”

Where are America’s STEM workers?

Substituting foreign workers with American ones isn’t a simple one-for-one swap. There is high demand for foreign professionals because there is an acute skills crunch in STEM fields in the US.

For the first time ever, the US has 10 million job openings. In computer-related jobs alone, there are 1.2 million vacancies. At any given time, the total number of H-1B workers in the US, tech or otherwise, is between 700,000 and 800,000, North himself has estimated. Even with foreign talent, the gap is far from plugged.

Furthermore, research shows foreign workers complement local hires, helping business and the economy grow. From big tech (pdf) to healthcare, most major industries need more than local talent—that’s why bigwigs like Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft contested Trump’s 2020 suspension of the program.