Roger McCrummen: H-1B visa lottery keeps highly skilled workers out of U.S. jobs

06/29/2014 11:00 AM

06/29/2014 5:40 PM

A verbatim quote from a highly skilled master’s degree foreign graduate of a U.S. engineering program, wanting to start his professional life in the U.S.: “Yay! You just made my day! What a relief! Time for party! Yay yay!”

He just found out he had won the lottery. No, he’s not referring to the Powerball, but the H-1B visa lottery. For most of us, the hard part would be doing well in school, getting accepted into a top flight engineering academic program in the U.S., completing the master’s degree, and getting a job offer from one of the top engineering companies in the world, all of which he did.

But the really hard part for foreign professionals in the U.S. is just getting an opportunity to apply for a work visa.

The H-1B visa is for professional, high-skilled temporary foreign workers in the U.S., those with at least bachelor’s degrees in specialty fields, like engineering, math or computer science. Congress limits the number of new H-1B approvals each year to 85,000 (with 20,000 reserved for persons with U.S. master’s degrees). April 1 of each year, employers can start filing for these visas for the upcoming fiscal year.

If more than 85,000 petitions are received in the first week after April 1, a lottery is held to determine which applications will be adjudicated. This year, 172,500 petitions were received in the first week — for 85,000 slots. This means that employers who typically spent thousands of dollars for each H-1B petition will have less than half of them selected for adjudication.

And what are the criteria for selection? Is preference given to shortage occupations? Scientists? No, it is a lottery. No wonder the engineer celebrated. Maybe for the first time in his life, success wasn’t based on merit and hard work, but pure chance. Is this any way to conduct immigration policy and provide best for the needs of the country?

If the foreign professional is not selected in the lottery, then he will have little choice but to return abroad, possibly to work for a foreign company or government competing with the U.S.

The U.S. employer who can’t hire the professional has little choice but to scale back on projects, or outsource work abroad because the employer can’t get the skilled workforce he needs in the U.S. The lottery may take place in April, but the effect lasts throughout the year, as the next opportunity to hire will be Oct. 1, 2015.

Economic evidence abounds for the value of retaining highly skilled foreign professionals in the U.S. Matthew Slaughter, an economist at Dartmouth, estimates that because of the limits on H-1B visas, the U.S. loses about 500,000 jobs every year. This is because not only do we lose scientists, engineers, and other who could fill open vacancies by utilizing an H-1B visa, but we lose jobs that would have been added because of the increased economic activity.

In other words, adding highly skilled immigrants to the job market doesn’t take jobs from Americans — it creates jobs. Beth Ann Bovino, the U.S. Chief Economist for Standard & Poor’s indicated that immigration reform targeting skilled foreign workers could add 3.2 percentage points to real GDP in the U.S. over the next 10 years and cut $150 billion from the deficit.

Congressional failure to act to increase the number of H-1Bs available continues to hurt the economy. This is just one aspect of the complex immigration debate, but it should be the impetus for a comprehensive reform of this outdated system.

Roger McCrummen of Kansas City is an attorney with the McCrummen Immigration Law Group in North Kansas City.

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