H-1B Visa Backlog Is Hurting American Innovation 

Immigrant workers have made a profound and significant contribution to the United States, helping to establish the country as a world leader in technical progress and innovation since the early twentieth century. However, that influence has been waning in recent years, due in part to visa backlogs.

Studies of immigration patterns throughout United States history reveal that higher numbers of immigrants to a particular region correlates with related economic growth and higher innovation rates. Conversely, when regions experience lower immigration rates, companies are less successful, slowing job growth and wage increases. This is especially true for technology companies, and those conducting innovative research and development work. Studies have also pointed out that immigrants are often more entrepreneurial, with 25 percent of companies throughout the country founded by first-generation immigrants between 2008-2012.

Currently, the federal government grants only 65,000 H-1B visas annually, with an additional 20,000 for foreign workers obtaining graduate degrees from American universities, significantly lower than the 195,000 annual cap of the early 2000s. Employment-based visas have maintained a steadily declining program that often turns away much-needed talented and highly skilled foreign workers.

One timely case in point is that of Katalin Kariko, PhD, a Hungarian-born biochemical researcher whose pioneering work in mRNA technology formed the development basis of Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccines. Had Kariko attempted to migrate under the current immigration restrictions rather than before 1990, she likely would have been denied, ultimately leading to a much worse pandemic, and a world still awaiting vaccines.

What is the H-1B Visa?

The H-1B visa is an employment-based visa allowing American employers to hire foreign workers in specialty fields, typically requiring higher educational degrees or specialized work experience. Applicants must be sponsored by an American employer who petitions for the visa on the worker’s behalf. The H-1B visa grants foreign workers the ability to live and work in the United States for up to six years, however, visa holders can apply for permanent resident status during that time if they wish to remain in the United States permanently.

What Are the Eligibility Requirements for the H-1B Visa?

Before establishing the criteria to apply for the H-1B visa, potential candidates must first establish their education and work experience are considered a “specialty occupation” for which they have obtained an employment offer. To qualify, candidates must be able to show:

  • The position offered requires that candidates hold a bachelor’s degree or higher level of education
  • The educational degree requirement is standard to the industry, or the job can only be held by those with a specific degree
  • The employer requires bachelor’s degree or an equivalent number of years in the profession, specifically work for the specific position
  • The position requires specialized responsibilities requiring the education and knowledge associated with a bachelor’s degree or higher

After establishing eligibility as a specialty occupation, potential H-1B visa candidates must meet specific educational and employment criteria to be eligible, as well. Candidates must have:

  • A bachelor’s degree or higher, or the equivalent degree from a higher education institution in your home country, in your chosen field
  • A specialty occupation job offer from an American-based employer in the field for which you were educated, trained, or worked
  • The employer providing ample proof there is a shortage or absence of qualified American applicants to perform the specialty occupation role

How Are Backlogs Affecting Innovation?

The U.S. Congress sets an annual cap on the number of H-1B visas available, which is considerably lower than labor market demands. Registration opens each year on March 1 and lasts only 14 days. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the onslaught of applications is so intense that the agency had to abandon the “first-come, first-served” model, resorting to a lottery process instead.

Applications began spiking in 2014 and continue to rise each year. At the close of registration in March 2022, 483,000 applications were filed, more than double the 201,000 received in 2020. With the 85,000 cap on total visas, only 26 percent of the nearly half-million applications were chosen for processing, meaning hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled foreign workers – and the American companies wishing to employ them – lose out time and again.

Worse still for American companies, applications are disproportionately concentrated in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields due to a steadily increasing American demand and shortchanging other industries. Despite the United States’ educational system investment in STEM-related programs in high schools, colleges, and universities, many U.S. companies report they struggle to fill their positions with American citizens, particularly in computer-related specialties. As a result, foreign computer programmers and software engineers are in high demand each year.

President Joe Biden’s Administration has promised to reform the overall immigration system, including reconstructing the high-skilled workers system, though the process has been slow and has encountered hurdles in Congress.

Two proposed acts show promise to help ease the backlog of applicants and bring more foreign workers to American businesses. The EAGLE Act proposes removing the existing seven percent per-country caps on employment-based permanent residency applications, which would particularly benefit India and China, as both countries have more workers interested in seeking work in the United States that currently exceeds each country’s annual cap. Lawmakers are encouraged for the Act’s passing, as the bill’s predecessor, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act passed the Senate unanimously in 2020.

The proposed STAPLE Act of 2017 would prioritize foreign graduates in PhD programs in American colleges and universities to receive work visas and permanent residency. The United Kingdom and Canada both have successful similar programs to attract international students into higher education programs by incentivizing them to remain in the country permanently following graduation. Currently, such a bill would benefit up to 100,000 international students each year in the United States.

Philadelphia Immigration Lawyers at Surin & Griffin P.C. Represent Clients Seeking H-1B High Skilled Employment Visas in the United States

The United States greatly benefits from the knowledge and experience of highly skilled foreign workers in American companies who, in turn, can benefit by pursuing American citizenship to live and work here permanently. If you are interested in seeking employment in the United States, the experienced Philadelphia immigration lawyers at Surin & Griffin P.C., are available to assist you in connecting with companies looking for exceptional education and talent. Call us at 215-925-4435 or contact us online to schedule an initial consultation today. Located in Philadelphia, we serve clients throughout Pennsylvania and nationwide.