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

News Analysis: The weak U.S. economy and more stringent scrutiny from an often hostile immigration bureaucracy has caused a sharp increase in the number of unused H-1B work visa slots.

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.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...