The H-1B Program: Building Block of the American Economy

Blog Post, Nicholas V. Montalto, Coordinator, NJBIC, May 14, 2021….

The field of U.S. immigration policy is filled with shorthand labels, and one of the more confusing and controversial ones is the “temporary” visa program called H-1B — a program that many people view as a vital building block of the American economy. The program provides a pathway into the American economy for high-skilled workers in “specialty occupations,” such as physicians, software engineers, and architects. The number of H-1B visas awarded annually is numerically capped at 85,000, with demand so far exceeding availability that a lottery system is used to award visas (308,000 applications were submitted in 2021). Many of these “nonimmigrant” visas are granted to STEM advanced degree holders from  U.S. colleges and universities.

Many employers of H-1B visa holders eventually file petitions on their behalf, permitting some H-1B visa holders to avail themselves of the limited number of immigrant visas available for employment purposes (currently 190,000 for primary visa holders and immediate family members), but others languish for years in this status (there’s a six year limit on the duration of this status) and eventually return home or move to other more welcoming countries like Canada.

There have been many criticisms of the H-1B program from both the right and the left. Some complained that the program was dominated by IT companies that outsourced foreign workers to companies in the U.S. Former President Trump claimed that the program favored foreigners over U.S.-born workers, although recent research suggests otherwise, including evidence that some firms moved operations overseas in order to gain access to skilled workers. The pandemic has shown employers that remote work, including remote work in other countries, is one way of dodging the bureaucratic barriers found in the U.S., including employer frustration at inevitably failing to get their desired H-1B visa holders through the annual lottery.

Although the Biden administration has relaxed some of the “broad and blunt” rules put in place by the previous administration, it has yet to rescind new minimal salary requirements that have provoked widespread industry objections, including from the AMA and the higher education community.  Although reforms are necessary, the NJ Business Immigration Coalition sees the H-1B program as the lynchpin of the nation’s efforts to attract immigrant talent to fill worker shortages in STEM and other job categories, and to maintain American competitiveness in a highly globalized labor market. We also believe that the H-1B program must fit seamlessly into a larger context, where immigration policy and the needs of the economy are closely linked.