Upcoming H-1B lottery gives US-based advanced degree candidates an edge over foreign degree ones

How much of an advantage depends on who's doing the calculations and from which data, but the bottom line is that those with Master's and PhDs will stand a better chance than those with foreign degrees for a coveted H1B visa.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer

The first blow against H-1B applicants -- most of whom are largely made up of Indian IT workers -- was delivered recently when United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released its new and revised rules for procuring the visa. The rules made clear that beginning April 1, for the fiscal year that begins October 2019, there would be a simple, yet impacting reversal in the way that the lottery for visas are orchestrated.

According to USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna in the USCIS release:

"These simple and smart changes are a positive benefit for employers, the foreign workers they seek to employ, and the agency's adjudicators, helping the H-1B visa program work better . . . The new registration system, once implemented, will lower overall costs for employers and increase government efficiency. We are also furthering President Trump's goal of improving our immigration system by making a simple adjustment to the H-1B cap selection process. As a result, US employers seeking to employ foreign workers with a US master's or higher degree will have a greater chance of selection in the H-1B lottery in years of excess demand for new H-1B visas."

How the lottery is going to work

Two main pools

There are two main pools for the H-1B visa. Until now, the first lottery draw was scheduled for advanced degree folks who could try their luck in snagging one of the 20,000 visas up for grabs. Those who were not successful could then throw their hat into the second, general application pool offering 65,000. The new rules reverse this process. The first round will now be the 65,000 slot -- in which everyone can take a chance. The advanced degree pool will be the second round. 

In other words, the laws of probability dictates that, by allowing advanced degree candidates to get a shot at snagging a visa in the larger pool first and then, if unsuccessful, in the smaller pool that is restricted to only their ilk, the odds are further stacked against non-advanced degree candidates.

USCIS reckons that this re-engineering will result in an additional 16 percent or 5,340 more Master's degree candidates from US universities at the expense of non-advance degree H-1B petitioners. I'm not sure how they got that figure, but TechCrunch has done some helpful, back-of-the-envelope number crunching. It reveals that if you used the new rules versus the old rules on last year's numbers in a hypothetical scenario, the spread turns out to be not so great between successful, non-advanced degree candidates (51.1 percent) versus advanced degree candidates (55.05 percent) with some caveats added. Doors to the lottery will be thrown open on April 1, so the tension is beginning to ratchet up on how things will unravel in actuality.

Mandatory electronic registration 

There's another significant change that was announced. The agency also said that it will be introducing a mandatory electronic registration requirement for petitioners before the main application process in order to screen for eligibility. However, the process will be suspended for this fiscal year while the system undergoes testing.

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The unforeseen consequences

Aside from the predictable uproar that the announcement has created among employers and applicants, the ultimate impact of this decision is still being debated. Ratings agency ICRA told India Today that the changes will cause a 10 percent drop in H-1B visa approvals for non-advanced degree applicants. If that is in fact true, then there could be a dent in the supply of entry-level programmers which many US companies have been relying on, as well as an accompanying hit to the bottom lines of both US companies and Indian IT firms. On the other hand, it could enhance the ability of American grads to get entry-level IT jobs, which some argue have disappeared under the onslaught of H1Bs, thereby weakening the foundation of domestic tech skills. That said, it is unclear how advanced degree holders vying for H-1Bs don't offer the same competitive threat to the domestic US workforce as the non-advanced degree applicants do. 

Some point to other unforeseen yet damaging consequences to professions in non-tech areas because of the new rules. As Cyrus D Mehta, founding partner of a New York-based law firm said in a Times of India article:

"The skewing of H-1B visas towards those with master's degrees from US institutions under the new selection methodology is in some senses counter to the H-1B law, which was to permit those with foreign degrees, and equivalent work experience, to qualify for H-1B classification . . . Hence, a foreign physician with a master's degree in medicine from a foreign university who intends to provide critical medical services in a shortage area in the United States may have less chances of nabbing an H-1B visa under the new proposal."

One possible positive consequence of the process reversal: More applicants will opt for graduate school rather than H-1Bs providing a boost to the whole STEM industry in the US by ramping up staffing and facilities.

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