85,000 H-1B visas are issued each year—here’s how the recipients are determined

A crucial part of the workforce.
A crucial part of the workforce.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Demand for H-1B visas in the US, under a new spotlight amid debate over proposed Trump administration immigration restrictions, is set to greatly exceed the supply once again.

The number of  2017 applications, which started rolling in  April 3, is expected to range between 210,000 and 240,000, according to redbus2us.com, a site that offers non-citizens guidance on studying and working in the US. Last year, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) logged a record 236,000 applications and reached its 85,000 cap on approvals within the first week.

The cap will be exceeded, which means that the visas that allows US companies to temporality employ workers in specialty professions will be awarded based on a random lottery for a fifth consecutive year.

Here’s a look at the key issues on H-1B visas:

Who gets H-1B visas

Foreign professionals who earn an annual salary of more than $60,000 are eligible to apply for the H-1B, which allows employment in the US for up to six years. Each year, the 85,000 are issued to college graduates. Of these, 20,000 are allocated solely to masters’ students.

Foreign-born workers comprise nearly 17% of the US labor force. While they work in various sectors, the H-1B is especially popular in tech. Nearly two-thirds of the H-1B visas allocated in 2014 went to those in computer-related occupations. Companies such as IBM, Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft import a sizable amount of talentIndia-based companies like Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS)—the top two sources of applications for the H-1B—are major exporters of software and also they contract out thousands of workers to tech companies across the US.

Legislation that is looming

A number of bills have long stoked fears that could affect H-1B-reliant firms in tech, and beyond.

GOP legislation proposed by senator Ted Cruz of Texas and US attorney general pick Jeff Sessions would essentially end the H-1B program by requiring all applicants to have a PhD, have at least 10 years of experience, and receive a minimum salary of $110,000 (up from the current $60,000).  Back when Sessions was an Alabama senator, he slammed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for lobbying to increase the intake of foreign labor.

A bill introduced in January by Californian congressman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley, proposes scrapping the H-1B lottery system and prioritizing applicants for whom employers are willing to pay 200% of existing wage levels. It advocates more than doubling the minimum required salary to to $130,000, to guarantee a place for high-paid, high-skilled labor. The proposed legislation, titled the High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017 (pdf), also suggests allocating 20% of H-1B visas to startups with fewer than 50 employees to prevent bigger companies from flooding lower-level positions with cheaper talent.

What the Trump administration has changed

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump vowed to weed out foreign workers in an effort to bring jobs back to America. In March 2016, the Republican candidate said he will “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap-labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”

In previous years, companies have been able to pay an additional fee of $1,225 per application to take an expedited processing route and get a decision within 15 days, presumably to fill positions for new projects on short notice, or to be able to quickly employ someone else if the H-1B applicant is rejected. However under president Trump, the USCIS has temporarily suspended premium processing for all H-1B applications for up to six months. This means all petitioners must wait three to six months to learn the fate of their applications.

And firms applying for H-1Bs are going to be subject to more scrutiny than before. Since 2009, the USCIS has relied on random site visits to ensure that employers and foreign workers are complying with the limitations of the visa. On April 3, it announced that the monitoring process would specifically target cases where the USCIS cannot validate the employer’s basic business information through commercially available data or when employers has a high ratio of H-1B workers compared to US counterparts.

To reduce tech’s reliance on outside workers, a new policy memorandum (pdf) signed March 31 aims to make it harder to bring foreign technology workers into the US. They require computer-programmer applications to be supplemented wth additional material to prove that their jobs are complex and require advanced knowledge and experience. The new policy is effective immediately, so it applies to annual lottery process that began on April 3. (In past years, the lottery has concluded during the week of April 10.) It’s possible that companies will take USCIS to court, saying they were not given enough notice.

While computer programmers are most apparently in jeopardy today, all H-1B applicants may be in for a tougher ride going forward under Trump.

What else could be ahead

On Jan 30, reports emerged of a draft executive order to overhaul US immigration laws, designed to “reduce the inflow of illegal entries and visa overstays” and “better serve the national interest.” It included instructions for the secretary of homeland security (pdf) to consider alterations to the H-1B program to “make it more efficient and ensure that the beneficiaries of the program are the best and the brightest.”

If the order is enacted, the visa revamp will likely also target the L-1 visa category, which allows multinationals and foreign companies operating in the US to bring in specialists and managers for a limited amount of time. The measure would block a new generation of immigrant startup founders and investors.

Advocates also warn that shutting out foreign talent could literally hurt the country’s health. They see the move to further restrict the entry of foreign workers as a signal that the H-4 work authorization, a 2015 regulation that granted to spouses of H-1B holders employed in specialty occupations to apply for work visas, could also be under threat.