From 1998 to 2003, the U.S. increased the number of visas made available to highly skilled foreigners who wanted residency.
According to Rutgers professor Carl Lin’s 2011 paper on the impact of the measures, Congress and President Clinton largely did this at the behest of Silicon Valley, which desperately needed more skilled workers.
However, by 2004, the H-1B visa cap crashed back down to pre-1998 levels, essentially ignoring the rapid development of the consumer technology industry.
This chart shows the annual number of H-1B visas allowed under law:
Photo: Carl Lin
Lin writes that in 1998, the high tech industry lobbied congress to raise the annual cap on the number of H-1B visas granted to immigrants, as the 65,000 per year limit couldn’t meet the industry’s demand for foreign skilled workers.
So, in 1998 President Clinton passed the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 doubling the available number of H-1B visas over two years.
Then, in 2000, Clinton signed the American Competitiveness in the 20-first Century Act of 2000, further raising the H-1B visa cap to 195,000 per year.
The Act’s measures only covered until fiscal year 2003, though, so by 2004 the whole nation was back to the highly skilled worker visa levels of the early 1990s, a visa level low even for pre-dot com boom standards.
The number of H-1B visas actually issued annually does exceed 65,000, due to two major exemptions to the cap. The first is that H-1B visas for employees of non-profit research facilities don’t count against the limit. The second is that the first 20,000 H-1B petitions filed for aliens with masters degrees don’t count against the cap either, functionally raising it to 85,000.
The issue for Silicon Valley is that the industry is by definition for-profit and that an additional 20,000 first-come-first-serve visas don’t make it any easier to bring in desired candidates on demand.
So while a bipartisan act developed by a group of eight senators doesn’t provide an exact quota for H-1B visas they intend to seek, the fact that the team wants to increase the antiquated numbers is certainly good news for the tech business.
A second, standalone bill — the Immigration Innovation Act — would double the number of H-1B visas to 130,000.
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