Demand for skilled foreign workers reached an all-time high in fiscal 2001 -- despite a recession and massive layoffs of American workers.
The US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) received 342,035 applications for H-1B visas between 1 October, 2000, and 30 September, 2001 -- a 14.4 percent increase from fiscal 2000, according to a survey released on Tuesday by VisaNow.com. H-1B visas allow foreigners with college degrees and relevant job experience to work in the United States, usually for technology firms looking for programmers and engineers.
The survey, based on public data supplied by the INS, is one of the first to demonstrate that the recession hasn't necessarily dented demand for controversial H-1B visas. A flurry of news reports in the past year have concluded that demand may be shrinking because the INS issued only about 163,000 H-1B visas in the 2001 fiscal year -- far short of the federal cap of 195,000.
But VisaNow.com spokesman Mark D. Shevitz said that the federal cap applies only to certain professionals, such as programmers and engineers at private technology companies. A large percentage of the foreign workers are exempt from the cap -- including scientists hired to teach at American universities, government research labs and non-profit organisations.
"Just because we didn't hit the cap doesn't mean there's any less of a demand," Shevitz said. "You need to look at the number of H-1Bs applied for, not approved, to determine demand."
Many of the applications in the past year have been for visas in universities, government agencies and non-profit groups, an INS representative said on Tuesday. But the INS has not released data on how many of the 178,835 applicants who did not get visas under the H-1B cap were exempt and may still receive visas.
An increase in H-1B applications from universities and the government may take some heat off the technology sector, which has been the most voracious consumer of foreign-born engineers, software developers and programmers. Technology executives and their lobbyists in Washington were key advocates of a bill to increase the cap on H-1B workers in the autumn of 2000.
But the survey has also sparked outrage among anti-immigration lobbyists, who say that H-1B visa workers steal jobs from Americans. According to the most recent survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8.3 million Americans were unemployed last month -- 2.6 million more than the number who were unemployed in December 2000.
"It's one thing to say they need workers in the rah-rah years when everyone was hiring and times were good. It's another thing to keep demanding these workers when times are bad and Americans are losing their jobs," said Brenda Walker, the West Coast representative for Project USA, a New York-based non-profit group that advocates reducing immigration to "sustainable levels" and is generally opposed to H-1B visas.
According to Project USA, American companies pay H-1B visa workers less than the average American worker with the same amount of experience and education. Because they're less expensive, Project USA argues, it's no surprise that US companies are demanding them even more during an economic downturn.
According to federal law, H-1B workers must be paid at least the median wage in their given job category when hired through the program. But many H-1B workers admit they ask for raises less frequently and are more reluctant to make waves than their American co-workers out of fear that their work permits will be revoked -- an acquiescence that H-1B opponents say stunts salary growth.
"American workers expect to get paid what they're worth," Walker said. "This is a sad situation where they bring in these folks from India and China, and we realise they're here to work cheap. We don't blame them; they want to get a green card and bring their families over. It's a different situation for them, but it's not fair to American workers."
Others say that H-1B visas are not a means of lowering wages but are a short-term solution to fill the gap between the job market and the US education system. They say American educators focus on liberal arts and sciences such as biology and chemistry, while the job market craves graduates in engineering, mathematics and computer science.
Congress created the H-1B program as part of the 1990 Immigration Act. It started as a means of importing workers to US hospitals, universities and companies specialising in cancer research, plastics, computer programming and other occupations.
By the mid-1990s, when technology surrounding the Internet caused an unprecedented economic boom, the H-1B program became a conduit for computer programmers and engineers, mainly from India and Taiwan. In one of his last acts as president, Bill Clinton passed the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act, increasing the limit of H-1B visas granted each year from 115,000 to 195,000. In 1998, the limit was 65,000.
H-1B legislation includes a programme to train American workers for high-tech jobs and teach children information-technology skills. The programme is financed by a $1,000 fee paid by the sponsoring employer for each visa application.
"Even with reports of large-scale layoffs in the tech industry, jobs continue to be created in the sectors that traditionally employ large numbers of skilled foreign workers," said Robert C. Meltzer, president of VisaNow.com. "The country simply does not graduate enough US citizens with the requisite background to meet the demand. They have no choice but to look overseas."