Skilled Immigrants

The Workers the U.S. Wants

By | Updated July 19, 2016 12:45 PM UTC

When some Americans talk about immigration, they picture those they want to keep out: undocumented people sneaking across the southern border. But when some U.S. businesses talk about immigration, they picture people they’d like to bring in: ones with science, math or technology skills, notable artists or those willing to pick tomatoes. The U.S. wants these workers. The problems come in deciding who and how many should be admitted.

The Situation

When the new accounting year began in April, it took less than a week for the U.S. government to exhaust the year’s 85,000 allotted petitions for H-1B visas, which are generally used for technology workers. Facebook, Google, Intel and Cisco Systems are among the companies lobbying Congress to increase the number of these visas; Facebook more than doubled its lobbying spending in 2015 from 2012. In December, Congress doubled the fees for H1-Bs to $4,000; India, the program’s biggest beneficiary, is disputing the increase with the World Trade Organization, saying this constitutes protectionism. U.S. businesses also bring in seasonal agriculture workers under the H-2A visa program; these are limited to 66,000 per year. Movie stars, distinguished academics and professional athletes face can get special U.S. work visas set aside for those with “extraordinary ability.” Extraordinary bank accounts allow the rich to receive visas if they’re willing to invest at least $500,000 in the U.S. and create at least 10 jobs within two years.

The Background

The U.S. system of immigration categories and caps has its roots in a 1924 law meant to curb a wave of post-World War I immigration. The law established a quota system limiting immigration from any one country to 2 percent of the number of people from that country already living in the U.S. in 1890, though it excluded Asian immigrants. The new restrictions coincided with the start of the Border Patrol. Quotas tightened after World War II after the U.S. faced a flood of Europeans fleeing Hitler and Communism. Congress later carved out special visas for certain nationalities. In 1990, for example, Senator Ted Kennedy, great-grandson of an Irish immigrant, helped establish an annual visa lottery program that benefited Irish immigrants. The U.S. Senate passed an immigration reform bill in 2013 that would have raised the annual H-1B visa limit to 135,000 from 85,000. It stalled in the House of Representatives because some Republicans didn’t like that it included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and instead wanted to move separate legislation for technology worker visas. Democrats who then controlled the Senate resisted; they wanted to use the promise of more H-1Bs as the sweetener to help enact broader immigration reform. In 2014, President Barack Obama used executive authority to expand a program that allows foreign graduates in science, technology, engineering and math to work in the U.S. for up to 29 months. Opposition to immigration tends to rise and fall with the state of the economy. In tough times, Americans desperate for work are none too happy to see businesses import laborers. Bad behavior can also sour Americans on immigrants: Canadian-born pop star Justin Bieber, living in the U.S. on an “extraordinary ability” visa, was arrested in 2014 for drunken drag racing, prompting non-Beliebers to petition the White House calling for the singer to be deported.

The Argument

Employers in both the tech industry and agriculture say there are not enough Americans able to fill all the available jobs. Food producers say crops are rotting in fields because there aren’t enough farmworkers after immigration crackdowns. U.S. tech employers say American universities aren’t producing enough mathematicians and engineers to keep pace with an economy producing 120,000 new jobs a year. They also ­­worry that stiffer global competition will make it more difficult to hire skilled workers in the future. Opponents point to an increase in U.S. students seeking degrees in science and technology-related fields and say the companies are just trying to avoid paying higher wages to American workers. They also say offshore outsourcing firms receive half of the H-1B visas, allowing workers to be trained in the U.S. who then take these tech jobs back to their home countries.


The Reference Shelf

  • A 2016 Congressional Research Service study: “Temporary Professional, Managerial, and Skilled Foreign Workers: Policy and Trends.”
  • Office of Foreign Labor Certification breakdown of H-1B visas workers by positions, employers and states.
  • The Immigration Policy Center guide to understanding the 2013 Senate immigration bill.
  • A Center for Global Development study showing seasonal agricultural workers create American jobs.
  • IMDB tracks British actors appearing in American TV shows.

First published Aug. 26, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Kate Hunter in London at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Anne Cronin at