H-1B Models Strut Into U.S. as Programmers Pray for Help

Ravi Shanker makes weekly pilgrimages to Chilkur Balaji temple outside Hyderabad, India, asking for a little help on a visa from an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

Shanker, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, a top engineering school, is praying for an H-1B visa to enter the U.S. He needs all the divine intervention he can get, because he’s not just vying with other software engineers for the high-skill work permits. His other rivals? Fashion models.

An oversight by Congress two decades ago led to the inclusion of models in the H-1B class. A 2007 bill to put them in another category -- and let their numbers soar -- failed. Its sponsor: then-Representative Anthony Weiner of New York, who quit Congress in 2011 after engaging in lewd online behavior.

While models will get fewer than 1 percent of the non-immigration H-1Bs, the employer-sponsored temporary work permits are increasingly coveted. Demand was so high this year that the government’s cap on applications was reached only five days after the filing period opened on April 1.

“It’s the one exception that we all scratch our heads about,” Neil Ruiz, an analyst at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, said of the addition of models as the only H-1B category that requires no bachelor’s degree.

Immigration Debate

As Congress again debates a plan to steer more skilled foreign workers to the U.S., it’s likely to leave intact the provision allowing fashion models to compete for permits. Revisions being considered in the Senate would raise the basic H-1B visa cap to 110,000 from 65,000 permits and increase fees on employers who depend heavily on the foreign workers. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat co-sponsoring a bipartisan proposal, declined comment.

Fashion models are almost twice as likely to get their visas as computer programmers, by one rough measure. There were 478 initial applications made for fashion models in 2010, according to U.S. Labor Department data compiled by Bloomberg. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved 250 visas for models. More than 325,000 H-1B petitions were filed for computer-related occupations; about 90,800 visas were distributed to foreign information-technology workers, including immigrants whose visas were being renewed or changed, and those who worked for higher education or nonprofit institutions that weren’t counted against the H-1B cap.

Higher Education

More than 99 percent of H-1B applicants had earned a bachelor’s degree or higher. Slightly more than half the H-1B models had no high school diploma, Ruiz said. Still, the average salary for an H-1B model was $161,000, almost three times the U.S. median household income, he said.

The Washington-based research organization found that New York was the most commonly sought destination for H-1B models, with 68 percent of applications originating from potential employers in the city. More than one in four H-1B models came from Brazil, Brookings found.

The inclusion of fashion models into the visa category that allows at least 65,000 scientists, engineers and other highly skilled foreign workers to work in the U.S. has its roots in a 1990 revision of immigration law that created separate classes of visas for performers, athletes, Nobel Prize laureates and religious workers.

After Congress passed the revision, former Representative Bruce Morrison, a Connecticut Democrat who led the House immigration panel, said lawmakers realized they hadn’t put fashion models in a separate category or moved them to a special class reserved for performers and athletes.

Weiner’s Bill

“It just wasn’t something anybody talked to us about,” said Morrison, currently working as an immigration lawyer and lobbyist.

Fashion models were placed into the H-1B visa category under a 1991 technical amendment sponsored by the late Senator Edward Kennedy. Sixteen years later, Weiner sponsored a bill to put models in the category for performers and athletes and allow as many as 1,000 to work in the U.S.

“The only question that we are trying to assess out here with this bill is whether or not people who come in for a day or two at a time to do a photo shoot and then want to go back, whether we should facilitate that type of commerce,” Weiner said during a 2008 hearing on the bill.

U.S. Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat who led the panel that considered Weiner’s bill, said the addition of fashion models in the same category as highly skilled technical workers had “increasingly caused real problems” as demand for H-1B visas began outstripping supply. Even after a 20-3 committee vote in favor of the Weiner bill, the legislation stalled.

‘Ugly American’

Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, derided the legislation as “The Ugly American Bill.”

Weiner, who is considering a run for mayor of New York, didn’t return calls left through an aide.

“They viewed it as frivolous, something about pretty girls,” Morrison said of the bill. “But it’s important, a big business.”

Foreign models such as England’s Kate Moss and Brazil’s Gisele Bundchen are among the public faces of a global fashion industry that generated revenue exceeding $1.3 trillion in 2008, according to a 2009 study by the Datamonitor Group, a London-based market-research firm.

In New York, an annual fashion week event has an economic impact of $865 million, according to the city. More than 170,000 people, about one in 20 of New York’s workforce, are employed in the fashion industry, according to the mayor’s office.

Modest Pay

Even so, most U.S. models don’t see many of the benefits. The typical model in 2009 earned $27,330, with the average magazine shoot paying about $100 daily, said Ashley Mears, a former model and Boston University sociologist.

The Ford Modeling Agency, owned by Altpoint Capital Partners LLC, a New York private equity firm, and Wilhemina International Inc., whose largest shareholder is Dallas-based hedge fund Newcastle Partners LP, have been responsible for 15 percent of the 11,751 H-1B model-related initial applications during the last decade, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Government data also show agencies including Trump Model Management, the New York-based company owned by Donald Trump, and Playboy Enterprises Inc., the Beverly Hills, California-based company owned by founder Hugh Hefner and private-equity firm Rizvi Traverse Management LLC, have filed more than 200 H-1B applications.

Different Markets

Agencies use models from various countries to appeal to different market segments, said Harold Mindel, director of Click Model Management Inc., whose roster has included models such as Australian Elle MacPherson, Italian Isabella Rossellini and Jamaican Grace Jones.

He said foreign fashion workers shouldn’t have to compete with science, technology and engineering applicants.

“As a single man, would you prefer to look at a beautiful woman or a high-tech worker?” he asked.

The expansion of H-1B visas is supported in Silicon Valley, where thousands of applications are made. A half-dozen firms -- Microsoft Corp., Google Inc., Oracle Corp., Intel Corp., Qualcomm Inc. and Apple Inc. -- accounted for 17 percent of the H-1B applications filed with the Labor Department in 2012, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“For us to continue to be the place where the world’s most creative, brilliant entrepreneurs come to build the next eBay, Google and Intel -- each of which was co-founded by an immigrant entrepreneur -- our immigration system needs to change,” Jeffrey Bussgang, a general partner at Boston-based Flybridge Capital, told the Senate Commerce Committee on May 8.

‘Visa Balaji’

Competing with fashion models for H-1Bs is “part of the challenge” of finding enough qualified science, technology and engineering workers for U.S. companies, said Robert Hoffman, senior vice president for the Information Technology Industry Council, a Washington-based consortium.

Near Hyderabad, thousands of people gather every weekend at the temple that’s home of the sheltered shrine of the “Visa Balaji,” as Lord Venkateswara, the Vishnu incarnation, is called. The temple’s priest, Rangarajan, said the crowds begin gathering about 7 a.m.

The temple has been a popular attraction for visa hopefuls for more than two decades, said Rangarajan, 45, who uses only one name.

“This is a cultural belief,” said Soma Krada, a 25-year-old software engineer for Infosys Ltd., who has applied for an H-1B visa to work in Houston. “I would feel terrible if my visa was rejected and I had not come here to pray.”

By 9 a.m., the priest, whose forehead and stomach are lined with white paint signaling his authority, is worried about the crowd. He asks how many are praying for visas. About 500 hands are raised, followed by chants of praise. As the crowd grows, Rangarajan urges supplicants to finish their obligatory 108 trips around the temple next week.

“Visa is not under my control,” said Shanker, 28. “It’s all luck. The only way to change my luck is through God.”

(Adds detail on H-1B visas in fourth paragraph.)
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