Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

America's H-1B Workers, in Four Charts

It's application season once again for high-skilled foreign workers

Applications for specialty worker visas opened Wednesday, kicking off a high-stakes race for foreigners hoping to enter or temporarily stay in the U.S. 

The U.S. allots 85,000 new H-1B visas per year, mostly to workers in technology, engineering, science and research. Demand far exceeds the cap: last year, employers filed 172,500 petitions during the application window, which was closed after one week. The available visas were allocated through a random lottery, meaning many people were turned down. 

A large inflow is expected again this year, so the drama is set to repeat. Here's a cheatsheat on what the current high-skilled visa workforce looks like -- and who the U.S. is potentially turning away. 

Where are they going?

High-skilled foreign workers cluster --  half of all approved H-1B petitions nationwide went to only nine metropolitan areas, with the New York-area leading the list, based on a new analysis of fiscal year 2014 data by Neil Ruiz and Jill Wilson, analysts at the Brookings Institution. Places like Durham, North Carolina, a hub for education, research and development, had the highest ratio of skilled visa approvals per 1,000 workers, as the chart below shows. 


Where are they coming from?

Indian workers dominate the H-1B visa category, as shown below. China's next in line, followed distantly by Canada.  Note that the total number of visas approved exceeds the 85,000 cap because of various exemptions

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Who is employing them?

Consulting firms and Indian technology companies are among the biggest applicants for the visa category, as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data released Tuesday shows. That's a big source of controversy, in part because there's concern that a handful of large firms crowd out smaller companies' applications. You can read additional criticism of this aspect of the program here

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What are they doing?

Most H-1B workers are in technology jobs, with systems analysts and programmers leading the pack, as the chart above shows. This graphic comes from USCIS  data on newly approved petitions for fiscal year 2014.

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What does all of this mean for the economy? The literature is polarized. One recent National Bureau of Economic Research study found that winning a higher number of H-1B petitions doesn't cause companies to file more patents and crowds out other workers. Separate reasearch released last year reached an opposite conclusion, that H-1B workers do not displace -- and actually complement -- Americans in computer-related occupations. What is clear: we'll be hearing more about H-1B this year as senators on the Hill push to expand and change the program

(This story was corrected to reflect a clarification from Brookings. The ratio of approvals is per 1,000 workers, instead of 100 workers.) 

For more, read this QuickTake: Skilled Immigrants

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