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The Visa Game — Hottest Ticket in Town

April 9, 2007


This time of year people think that passes to NCAA final four games or badges to the Masters golf tournament are the hottest (and most difficult) tickets to obtain. I’d like to add another hot ticket to that list — H-1B professional visas. Washington Post staff writer Krissah Williams reports this is the time of year when companies compete to get them [“U.S. Companies Race to Fill Quota of Coveted Technology Worker Visas,” 3 April 2007]. She writes:

“The race opened yesterday for U.S. companies scrambling to get visas for foreign professionals, many from India and China, to fill engineering, computer programming and other technology jobs. Immigration lawyers predicted that the quota of 65,000 professional visas, known as H-1B, would be claimed in just one day, reflecting increased demand. That would be the fastest the visas have ever been depleted. Last year, the supply lasted two months. The requests are filled on a first-come, first-served basis until the quota is nearly reached. The final applications are then chosen randomly.”

The prediction, in fact, came true. Associated Press business writer Jessic Mintz reported “the agency began accepting petitions Monday for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 and said it received about 150,000 applications by mid-afternoon.” [“U.S. hits limits for skilled-worker visas,” 3 April 2007]. This process used to be the corporate version of staying in line all night in order to be one of the first people to get available tickets to playoff games. Mintz reports that the agency will now use a lottery system.

“The agency said it will use computers to randomly pick visa recipients from the applications received Monday and Tuesday. It will reject the rest of the applications and return the filing fees.”

Williams explains what the visas are and why they have become so difficult to obtain:

“H-1B visas are a relatively swift path to immigration for foreigners with bachelor’s degrees and U.S. companies to sponsor them, making them popular. Immigrants, along with the U.S. technology industry lobby, have been advocating for an increase in the H-1B quota to reform the visa program and simplify the green-card application process. A bill, sponsored by Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), includes a provision to lift the cap to 115,000 as part of a congressional overhaul of immigration law. The H-1B program was introduced in the 1990s, and after the technology boom the cap soared to nearly 200,000 workers in 2004. The cap went back down two years ago. Most H-1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to recruit workers anywhere in the world, are used to fill technology jobs, but doctors, teachers and accountants also qualify. The visa is good for three years but can be renewed as long as the visa holder remains with a sponsoring company.”

There are a few implications that can be drawn from this competition for talent. First, America still recognizes the value of the “brain drain” strategy that has served it so well in the past. Second, the technology sector remains strong and companies are betting it will get stronger. Finally, American education is not producing sufficient numbers and kinds of technology professionals to fill available jobs. Not everyone agrees with this latter implication. Some critics believe we have enough talent to fill these slots. The scramble for visas, they argue, is a competition to keep wages down. Williams reports:

“The program is not without criticism. Advocates for U.S. computer programmers worry that H-1B holders bring down wages and displace American workers. ‘What may be good for our country as a whole may not be good for individuals,’ said Joseph E. Stiglitz, a economist and author. ‘We haven’t thought well about how we compensate the losers.'”

The “losers” Stiglitz talks about are programmers left without jobs. The others losers in this process are companies that fail to get all the visas they desire. Williams notes that losing means waiting:

“Companies that don’t land an H-1B have to wait 18 months before they can try again. The process of preparing applications can be lengthy and expensive, Cooper said. Each application is 15 to 50 pages long and requires a description of the position, proof of the foreign applicant’s credentials, petitions explaining why a foreign worker is needed to fill the job and a promise to pay a fair wage. Employers also pay upward of $6,000 in processing and legal fees to apply.”

On the whole, having U.S. companies participate in the global commute is beneficial. We benefit from diversity and from fresh perspectives. America is still a magnet for talent, which is a good thing. There are a number of countries competing for the world’s best minds. America needs to remain among the elite group that can attract them.

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