Jan 12, 2022 - Technology

Tech firms cheer smoother visa sailing

Denial rate for new H-1B visa petitions, by fiscal year
Data: USCIS; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

The Biden-era approach to visas used by skilled foreign workers is injecting more certainty into the hiring process for large tech employers after four tumultuous Trump administration years.

Driving the news: Biden's first year saw a record low in the denial rate of high-skilled foreign worker visa petitions, according to an analysis of government data by the National Foundation for American Policy shared exclusively with Axios.

  • That number had leaped under Trump.

Why it matters: The demand for technical jobs has spiked during the pandemic, while a tight overall national job market continues to face pandemic-related stress.

Catch up quick: The H-1B program allows foreign workers to fill specialty occupations and has become the most practical way for highly educated foreign citizens to be employed long-term in the U.S.

  • Tech leaders have long urged expanding the program to help them draw more talent from overseas, while critics have argued that companies use it to hold a lid on wages.

By the numbers: The denial rate for new H-1B employment petitions dropped to 4% during fiscal year 2021, the lowest known level, according to the NFAP analysis.

  • During the Trump administration, the denial rate soared to 24% in fiscal year 2018 and remained high at 21% in fiscal year 2019, and 13% in fiscal year 2020.
  • The Trump administration imposed restrictions such as narrowing who could qualify for the visas and re-adjudicating previously approved visas, but court challenges forced changes to these practices.

How it works: There's an annual limit of 85,000 H-1B visas, but demand overwhelms supply. Employers filed more than 300,000 registrations for H-1B selection for fiscal year 2022, NFAP said.

  • So the U.S. first runs a lottery to winnow the field, then reviews qualifications for the smaller pool. The denial rate measures rejections at this stage.

The intrigue: Amazon had the most approved H-1B petitions for initial employment in fiscal year 2021, according the NFAP analysis.

  • Google, IBM and Microsoft were also among the companies with the most new petitions approved.
  • “We appreciate the administration’s efforts to make the H-1B approval process work more smoothly for employees, their families, and businesses to help U.S. economic growth," José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson, told Axios. "In addition to hiring American workers, American businesses need high-skilled immigrants even more now to help fill the current labor shortage as the United States recovers from the pandemic."
  • "It's not surprising that companies looking to grow and innovate in the United States are going to be hiring a relatively large number of foreign nationals as engineers, because they need people to continue to grow," Stuart Anderson, executive director of NFAP, told Axios.

Between the lines: The Biden administration policies largely returned to the pre-Trump status quo.

  • The Trump administration's efforts to limit immigration included a variety of moves to limit and toughen the H-1B application and renewal process that made it hard for companies to make recruiting plans.
  • Visa holders who'd been previously approved and renewed were seeing their extension requests rejected even though no circumstances had changed.

What they're saying: "It's a good sign for business, to have more certainty and it's a good sign for individuals, that they have a better chance of being able to stay in the United States and make their careers," Anderson said.

  • "Our members feel a sense of normality has returned to the immigration system," said Andy Halataei, executive vice president of government affairs for tech trade group ITI, told Axios. "There’s clear guidance on how applications will be treated and processed, and it doesn't look like they’re using the regulatory system to achieve a policy agenda.”

The other side: Daniel Costa, director of immigration at the Economic Policy Institute, noted that despite increased scrutiny during the Trump administration, the H-1B cap was still met every year.

  • Costa said the visa program is important, but "it is severely lacking in terms of good wage rules and oversight by the Labor Department."
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