Skilled Immigrants

By | Updated April 20, 2017 8:31 PM UTC

When some Americans talk about immigration, they picture people they want to keep out: the undocumented ones sneaking across the southern border. But when some U.S. businesses talk about immigration, they picture people they’d like to bring in, especially those with science, math or computer skills. President Donald Trump has called for an increase in the legal immigration of high-skilled workers even as he’s looking to overhaul the temporary visa program used by technology companies to hire tens of thousands each year. The result could roil businesses from Silicon Valley to New Delhi.

The Situation

During his campaign for president, Trump said the H-1B visa program, mostly used to hire technology workers, was a “cheap labor program” that takes jobs from Americans and called for its end. In his first address to Congress in February, he proposed that the U.S. switch to a legal immigration system designed to bring in skilled workers. In April, he ordered that agencies propose ways to direct H-1B visas toward the most skilled and highly paid applicants. These visas are in demand: In 2017, it took just four days for applicants to exhaust the 85,000 petitions the government allots for H-1Bs each year. Indians receive more H-IBs than any other nationality. Facebook, Google, Intel and Cisco Systems are among the companies that have lobbied Congress to increase the number of these visas. H-1Bs, issued for up to three years with a possible extension for three more, aren’t the only ways U.S. businesses can hire foreign help. Seasonal agriculture workers come in under the H-2A visa program. Movie stars, distinguished academics and professional athletes can get special U.S. work visas set aside for those with “extraordinary ability.” Extraordinary bank accounts have allowed the rich to receive EB-5 visas if they were willing to invest at least $500,000 in the U.S. and create at least 10 jobs within two years; a lot of this money has gone into real estate developments. Concerns that the U.S. might raise this amount to $1.35 million have prompted a recent flood of applications from wealthy Chinese investors.

Source: U.S. Department of State

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. Quotas tightened after World War II as the nation faced a flood of Europeans fleeing Hitler and Communism. The war also led to a dearth of farm workers, so in 1942, the U.S. signed an agreement that allowed Mexican laborers in for short-term work. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 permitted employers to hire skilled foreign workers to fill temporary positions; early on it was used to bring in Basque sheepherders to tend flocks in remote western areas. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1990 created the H-1A visa for nurses, to cope with a nationwide shortage, and the H-1B for skilled people like scientists and engineers. In 1998, during the tech bubble, the U.S. Congress amended the law to allow more H-1Bs to be issued for computer workers. The 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. In 2014, President Barack Obama used executive authority to expand a program that allows foreign graduates in STEM fields — 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.

Efforts to overhaul U.S. visa programs could have huge implications for Silicon Valley (video)

The Argument

Employers in both the tech industry and agriculture say there aren’t enough Americans able to fill all their available jobs. Food producers say crops have rotted in the fields because there aren’t enough farmworkers after immigration crackdowns. U.S. tech employers say American universities don’t produce enough mathematicians and engineers to keep pace with an economic sector producing 150,000 new jobs a year. Opponents of H-1B visas note that there’s been an increase in U.S. students seeking STEM degrees. There are also foreign students earning these degrees in American universities; some lawmakers have proposed that green cards granting permanent residence be “stapled” to their diplomas. Those arguing against the temporary visa system note that offshore outsourcing firms receive half of the H-1Bs, allowing workers to be trained in the U.S. who then take those tech jobs back to their home countries. Indian outsourcing companies facing the loss of H-1B hires as on-the-ground representatives say their American customers will end up paying more for services. Opponents of the visa program also say companies are just trying to avoid paying higher wages to American workers, though some studies have shown that some increases in H-1B workers resulted in higher wages for college-educated natives. 

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.
  • A Bloomberg graphic explores the current H-1B workers and companies. In Bloomberg View, Paula Dwyer laid out the case for giving green cards to tech graduates. And a Bloomberg Q&A explores the options for H-1B reform in Washington.
  • 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:
Kathleen Hunter in London at

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