The H-1B visa cap tells you very little about how many H-1B visas there are

Or then again, not.
Or then again, not.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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On April 1, the US government began accepting this year’s applications for H-1B visas—the coveted permits that let companies bring in highly skilled foreign workers. The number of applications has almost certainly already exceeded the annual 85,000 cap on new visas. Last year it took just a week (paywall) for the government to receive 236,000 applications and stop accepting new ones.

President Donald Trump’s administration has made the H-1B a target of its ire, warning on April 3 that it would crack down on employers that it believes hire foreign workers over equally capable Americans. It might seem odd to make a fuss about a visa capped at 85,000 a year—a drop in the ocean of the American workforce. But a closer look at the numbers gives a slightly clearer sense of why America’s foreign-worker programs have sparked voter resentment.

The H-1B cap has remained constant since 2004. Since 2007, the government has several times had to use a lottery system to allocate the 85,000 visas among a much larger number of applications. Yet for the past few years, the number of visas issued has been steadily growing. And since H-1Bs are valid for three years, that means the number of valid visa holders in any given year has been growing even faster—it’s currently over half a million:

How can there be more visas issued than the official cap? For one thing, the cap doesn’t apply to visa renewals (an H-1B can be renewed for a second three-year stretch, and in some cases more), nor to visas for work at higher-education institutions, government research organizations, and certain nonprofits. So if more visas are being issued each year, either more people are renewing their H-1Bs, cap-exempt organizations are applying for more visas, or a mix of both is happening.

Which is it? The State Department’s statistics don’t answer the question—they only list the total H-1B visas granted. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (Uscis), however, do provide detailed breakdowns of H-1B petitions granted in their annual reports to Congress. (This is not the same as the number of visas, because a person can have more than one petition filed on her behalf; in 2015, for example, Uscis granted 275,317 H1-B petitions, but the State Department issued only 172,748 H-1B visas.) These show whether petitions granted for ”continuing employment”—i.e., renewals—are going up as a share of the total. Answer: not in recent years.

This suggests that the increase in total visa numbers is because exempt organizations are bringing in more foreign workers—though it’s not clear which kinds of organizations are doing it the most. (We’ve asked the State Department for comment, and will update if we get any.)

Moreover, the H-1B is only one of several kinds of visas that temporary workers can apply for. There are also H-2 visas, for seasonal workers; L-1 visas, for people transferred from overseas within their companies; and others. In 2013, for example, according to a report from the Brookings Institution, the US granted visas to more than 600,000 temporary workers and their spouses or children, of which fewer than a quarter were H-1Bs. Each type of visa has a different duration, but it means that in any given year there are far more people with temporary work visas in the country than the number of visas granted that year.

Compared to many countries, the US has a pretty low ratio of temporary workers to permanent immigrants, the Brookings report points out. Nonetheless, these numbers may help to explain why so many American voters feel that foreigners are coming in and taking their jobs.

Still, for Trump to scapegoat H-1B visa holders seems rather misplaced. Fully two-thirds of the petitions granted in 2015 were for people in “computer-related occupations”—in other words, mostly coders for Silicon Valley. These are not the kinds of jobs that most Trump voters are competing for.