What’s an H-1B visa? And who gets them?

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For the past six years, companies in the United States have filed more than a million applications to enter a lottery for skilled foreign workers. Their chances of winning the right to work in the United States were around 44 percent.

The “golden ticket” is an H-1B visa. It requires an applicant to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Since FY2004, the U.S. government has capped the number of applicants in the general lottery at 65,000 each year.

The U.S. reserves another 20,000 visas in a separate lottery for people with graduate degrees. Universities and some non-profit organizations are exempt from the cap.

The U.S. created the H-1B visa program to meet the country’s demand for high-skilled workers. There aren’t enough Americans to fill the vacant positions. The information technology, engineering, finance and education industries rely heavily on the program.

Between fiscal years 2007 and 2017, almost six in ten applicants sought jobs in computer-related fields.

Every year, companies in California, New Jersey, Texas, New York and Illinois file thousands of applications to hire H-1B visa workers. Companies have to sponsor applicants, and hire lawyers to help them.

Since FY2014, the H-1B applicant pool hit the 85,000 cap within a week after the application period opens.

After a period of steady growth in applications, the number started to fall below 200,000 in 2017. And, the number continues to drop.

On April 18, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the “Buy American, Hire American” Executive Order, while saying “right now H-1B visas are awarded in a totally random lottery, and that’s wrong. Instead, they should be given to the most-skilled and highest-paid applicants.”

The average compensation for H-1B workers has been on the rise. The median salary for all H-1B visa holders was $82,000 in FY2016 — about 10 percent higher than U.S. workers in fields related to computers and mathematics.

Trump’s executive order asks government agencies to “rigorously enforce and administer” immigration laws to crack down abuses. Some immigration lawyers have reported a jump in government requests for evidence to support an application.

“That mentality has been stretched through a lot of the IT fields. We have seen Request for Evidence. We’ve seen denials,” said Robert Cohen, an immigration lawyer based in Columbus, OH with extensive experience in business immigration.

Data acquired directly from the United States Customs and Immigration Services also shows the approval rates have been declining after Trump signed the executive order. The Request for Evidence (RFE) rate shot up tenfold to more than 80 percent in August 2017 from 8.2 percent in April.

USCIS acknowledges the increase in RFE numbers and says that reflects the organization’s commitment to “protect the integrity of the immigration system.”

“On occasion, it is necessary to issue more than one RFE per petition to ensure the petitioners are being truthful and that the jobs and wages being provided are accurate. We understand that RFEs can cause delays, but the added review and additional information gives us the assurance we are approving petitions correctly,” said USCIS Director Lee Francis Cissna in an email response.

One in six people in the U.S. labor force was foreign-born in 2016. As the nation’s largest temporary employment visa program, H-1B has been the primary avenue for foreign talent to enter and work in the U.S., especially the ones from China and India.

Many H-1B visa applicants are students who study at U.S. institutions. Recent U.S.-China trade tensions have created additional uncertainty for Chinese students.

What happens after H-1B applicants file visa requests? They wait. The current wait time is between 10 to 13 months, based on USCIS’ processing time calculator.

“My clients find it very frustrating, because I get a call in June, and the earliest I can file would be next April for a starting date of following October. Employers don’t really work like that,” said Cohen, also the chair of the USCIS Benefits Liaison Committee.

Hiring American has had a boomerang effect on some U.S. companies. They’re spending more time and money to get foreign talent—putting the companies at a competitive disadvantage in a global market for skilled workers. Some tech companies in Canada have benefited already.

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