H-1B Visa Usage Declines Sharply Due to Economy, Bureaucracy

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2010-07-26

H-1B Visa Usage Declines Sharply Due to Economy, Bureaucracy

The flagging U.S. economy is a major reason why nearly 40,000 H-1B visa application slots are currently unused, and an additional 9,000 slots in the Masters Exemption program are still open.

This is a significant drop in applications from previous years, according to immigration attorney Kellie Lego, managing attorney of the MVP Law Group in Burtonsville, Md., near Washington, D.C. "It has to do a lot with the economy and the issue of unemployment in the U.S.," Lego said. She said that a few major corporations are continuing to bring employees into the United States on H-1B visas, but that the overall numbers have shown a huge decrease.

Lego also said that she's seen indications that the decrease in applications for H-1B visas, which allow experienced non-immigrants to work for a time in the United States, go beyond just the economy. For example, she said that would-be H-1B visa applicants have a much more stringent process for proving they have a job in the United States than used to be the case, and that they have to go through a series of interviews at a U.S. Consulate in their home country. According to Lego, the ease with which a prospective visa applicant gets through the process depends heavily on the evidence that the employer provides in advance of these interviews.

"They're given so much scrutiny, it's hard," Lego said. Lego noted, however, that with smaller companies, the economy is really the significant factor - they can't hire people when there are no jobs to put them into.

But a complex application process and a lack of jobs are only part of the problem. There's also fear. Lego reported in her blog on Feb. 11 that Customs and Border Protection agents were denying entry into the United States of holders of valid H-1B visas at Newark International Airport. Agents were focusing on travelers from India, and turning back a large number of them, according to reports cited in the blog.

Understandably, the chance that a bearer of a valid visa for entry into the United States would be denied entry at the airport is enough to give would-be workers pause. Why, after all, go to the trouble and expense of entering the United States, only to be turned around regardless of having the proper papers?

While the U.S. Department of State was unable to speculate on the reasons for the drop in H-1B applications, a spokesperson for the department was able to confirm that applications have dropped sharply over the last two years. The State Department posts its visa statistics on its Website each year, and the number for 2009 was approximately 110,000 applicants, which is about a 30 percent drop from 2007. 

H-1B Visa Losing Luster as Passport into U.S. Job Market

Lego said that she suspects the tighter scrutiny is at least partly related to some abuses of the visa process in past years. She also said that the current immigration law needs to be changed, a feeling echoed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress for the past several years.

Lego's position on the reduced numbers is clearly supported by the State Department's own numbers. The reasons for the reduced numbers are taken from anecdotal reports by her firm's clients. But I think the issue goes much deeper than a poor economy and bureaucratic resistance. After hearing and reading a number of horror stories of fear among legal visitors, of abuses of authority on the part of government agents, I suspect that a number of would-be H-1B applicants think the United States just isn't worth the trouble.

There was the time when the best in the technology business came to the United States to learn, to grow their skills and to provide skilled help to our companies in the process. But the mood in the United States has changed. Punitive procedures in states and counties in the United States make visitors fear for their freedom and for their livelihood.

In Prince William County, Va., which is in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the police are required to confirm the status of any person who the individual officer thinks may be in the United States illegally. In the process, they subject legal visitors, as well as U.S. citizens to interrogations and threats to their freedom if they can't instantly prove that they're here legally.

Arizona has instituted a similar set of laws. While the authorities in Arizona may have reason for worry about the bloody violence of the incessant drug wars in Mexico spilling into their state, and while they may have a legitimate complaint that the U.S. government isn't doing enough, subjecting innocent visitors to detention and interrogation isn't the answer.

Likewise, independent, perhaps rogue, actions by law enforcement, such as the border patrol agents at the Newark airport, give the U.S. a decidedly anti-foreigner look. So perhaps the arbitrary actions by some government agents, the decidedly anti-immigrant policies in some political jurisdictions, labyrinthine bureaucratic processes and a lousy job outlook are really a perfect storm. With all of that, who in their right mind would want to come to the United States?

Editor's Note: The editors have temporarily removed the comment section from this piece. We apologize for any inconvenience. 

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