The H1-B Visa Cap Hasn't Changed... So Why are Foreign Worker Numbers Increasing?

In the last few weeks, we’ve explored the positive impact that legal immigration has on our social security crisis, as well as the reality of immigration population throughout history. 

Key points include the fact that an increasingly aged population, combined with slackening birth rates, has led to an overabundance of American jobs with no one to fill them. Consequently, fewer people are contributing to the social security fund. Left unchecked, these circumstances can and most likely will lead to a SSI bubble burst, leaving millions of vulnerable senior citizens without income and younger generations scrambling to recover their retirement funds.

Foreign Workers and the H1-B Visa

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently released their H1-B Fiscal Year 2020 Cap Season informational page. For the 15th consecutive year, the cap remained at 85,000 applicants. 

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The purpose of the H1-B visa is to bring foreign workers to the United States to help fill in the 7.3 million unoccupied American jobs. These coveted visas are split into two categories: 65,000 for those with bachelor’s degrees and 20,000 for those with master's degrees or higher. Most workers are seeking employment in the STEM fields, though some come for jobs in education, accounting, and other highly specialized fields. 

Foreign workers here on the H1-B visa are initially eligible to stay in the U.S. for three years, but that time can be extended up to six years with additional approval. 

In 2017, following an overwhelming rush of applications, the doors slammed shut after just one week, leaving many who were still interested in filing a petition out of luck. This came on the heels of allegations that employers were laying off American workers in favor of their “foreign successors.”

Thomas Wheeler, former head of civil rights cases for the DOJ, had this to say about the situation: “The Justice Department will not tolerate employers’ misusing the H-1B visa process to discriminate against U.S. workers.”

This year, the cap was met in just five days and rejection rates were at an all time high, leaving a heavy financial burden on businesses. Especially affected were tech companies who paid for their employees to transfer to American markets. 

An article from MoneyControl notes: “Infosys was hit with a 57 percent denial rate for the period compared to 2 percent in FY15; while Wipro saw 63 percent denials against 7 percent from FY15, and HCL had 43 percent from the 2 percent in FY15.”

Consistent Cap, Rising Numbers

The current number of H1-B visa holders sits at over 500,000, despite the fact that the cap has remained consistent, leaving many Americans with the impression that more and more foreign workers are moving into the United States.

That perception is not necessarily unfounded. For example, visa renewals are not considered part of the 85,000 cap. That means that the number of people staying for the whole six years are mixing in with the 510K newly approved visa holders over the course of their stay. Additionally, workers in higher education, government research, and certain nonprofit companies are cap-exempt.

Gideon Lichfield, a writer for Quartz, summarizes this idea nicely: “So if [no] 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.”

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In reality, though, the numbers have fluctuated over time. While true that 2016 saw the highest numbers of currently valid foreign visas, 2009 came pretty close at over 400K before dropping down to 350K in 2011 and 2012. This suggests that the claim of a constantly rising stream of foreign workers “stealing” American jobs is not a theory supported by research or data. 

Hope in the H1-B

As with many facets of American government and policy making, it can sometimes be hard to see the forest and not the trees. We hear isolated stories of people being laid off from positions only to have them filled by an immigrant, and it gives us pause about the benefits legal immigrants bring to the United States. While these things can and do happen, the fact of the matter is that they are isolated events. 

It’s not worth dismantling the visa program when other checks and balances can be put in place. For every situation where the lines get blurred between reality and perception about why a worker was laid off, there are thousands more stories of immigrants filling in employment gaps that make a beneficial contribution to the United States economy. 

To continue to demean the H1-B program as the root of our immigration issues is a disservice to ourselves and our country. Foreign-workers and native-born workers are not competing in fields where H1-B visa holders are being hired. Instead, they are filling jobs where the American supply is much lower than the demand. 

America is at a crossroads where we must decide what is more important: the continued sustainability of our economy or the “us vs. them” mentality. 

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We’ll leave you with a few statistics from the American Immigration Council as food for thought:

  1. “Unemployment rates are low for occupations that use large numbers of H-1B visas. For example, many STEM occupations have very low unemployment compared to the overall national unemployment rate. These low unemployment rates signal a demand for labor that exceeds the supply.”

  2. “Nearly two-thirds of requests for H-1B workers are for STEM occupations. There is also a high demand for workers in healthcare, business, finance, and life sciences industries.”

  3. “Research indicates that an increase in H-1B visas could create an estimated 1.3 million new jobs and add around $158 billion to gross domestic product in the United States by 2045.”