What Is the U.S. Visa System for ‘Skilled’ Migrants?
Neither he nor anyone else could have foreseen what came next: the global tech boom and the birth of the outsourcing industry. Suddenly, what had begun as a temporary solution to address a labor shortage became a device through which hundreds of thousands of IT professionals from around the world, especially India, came to the United States. The program became a de facto path to permanent residence and, ultimately, American citizenship. Companies used it to hire workers who, because of the rules of the program, were tied to their employer—they couldn’t negotiate higher wages or move to a company that offered them more money.
The lack of labor mobility became a major criticism of the visa, but it paled in comparison to the program’s impact on American tech workers. Indian companies would win contracts to develop code for American businesses, and would import workers from India to the United States on H-1B visas. Because the number of those who could be brought into the United States was capped, the Indian workers who did obtain the visas would come to the U.S. to be trained before being sent back to India, where they would continue their jobs at lower salaries than their American counterparts commanded. Some American workers even suffered the indignity of being forced to train the H-1B workers who eventually replaced them. Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who studies the impact of the visa, says the H-1B prioritizes outsourcers, sets wages too low, and doesn’t address the problem it was created to solve—filling labor-market gaps.
“The program has been flawed from the inception,” he told me. “My primary complaint is that it’s used for cheap indentured workers.”
Some of the program’s harshest critics are, in fact, those who have availed of it themselves. Many Indian and Chinese citizens on H-1B visas face years-long waits for permanent residence because of the rules surrounding green cards. They argue that this means they can’t leave their current job, aren’t given raises, and live in limbo, and that the visa should be changed to allow labor mobility.
The visa’s supporters—mainly corporations and immigration lawyers—say that companies sponsor foreign workers not because they’re cheaper, but because they are needed. The application process is expensive, costing upwards of $2,400 (not counting lawyer’s fees), and has become cumbersome, they argue, so no American company would voluntarily seek to hire a foreign worker when simply hiring an American one is far easier. They contend that American universities do churn out graduates in technical STEM subjects, but not at the rate workers are needed.
Previous administrations tried to walk the line between these competing interests, but the Trump administration, through its actions, is making the H-1B far more difficult to get—especially for Indian software companies, whose visa applications were rejected in record numbers last year.