There are far too many moments when the dysfunction of our outdated immigration system becomes crystal clear. One of those moments occurred this week when U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it had received a record number of H-1B visa petitions during the five-day filing window for the coming fiscal year. Because our immigration laws are now more than a generation old, our system is simply not equipped for today’s reality – the H-1B program is like a dial-up connection in a high-speed wireless world.
A recent report shows that the presence of high-skilled immigrants improves a wide spectrum of the American economy and benefits U.S. workers. There is a direct correlation between the hiring of high-skilled immigrants and the creation of new jobs and new opportunities for economic growth in communities across the nation. The H-1B visa program is a way for U.S. businesses to hire those high-skilled immigrants. But, with an artificial limit of 85,000 on the number who can come here, Congress has not made it easy for these essential workers to get here, even with a job offer in hand.
April 1 is the date U.S. employers may begin filing petitions for H-1B visas and these days the window of opportunity opens and closes quickly. If the number of petitions received in the first five business days of April exceeds that 85,000 limit, all of them are thrown into a lottery. This year, as has happened the past several years, truckloads of petitions are submitted, and then the lucky few that are selected in the lottery are pulled for additional evaluation. Last year, less than 40% of those that came in were approved. These odds make it extremely difficult for U.S. businesses to reliably attract and hire the workers they need. America needs Congress to increase the number of H-1B visas available, provide exemptions from the H-1B cap for graduates with advanced degrees from U.S. universities, exemptions for those who will work in our colleges, universities, and research centers, and create other exemptions based on national need.
The government also needs to improve the integrity of the program, by using existing tools to enforce the laws and guard against the improper use of the H-1B visa, such as when an employer fails to pay the required wage.
This visa system, which is frozen by an arbitrary number set by Congress decades ago, is holding our economy hostage and makes no sense at all. Instead, a real-time system that is responsive to the needs of employers by giving them the ability to fill positions quickly, while also protecting workers from exploitation and abuse, is a clear win-win for everyone – employers, workers, and the American economy.
Falling behind in the global race for talent isn’t a recipe for continued success and runs contrary to our country’s legacy of innovation and global leadership. With a record 236,000+ petitions received during the limited filing period and only 85,000 visas available, American businesses once again find themselves the butt of a bad April Fool’s Day prank. Congress must lead on this issue and reform the H-1B program in a way that addresses the needs of American businesses, workers, and our economy. Congress must bring our entire immigration system out of the last century and into this one.
Written by Benjamin Johnson, AILA Executive Director