When Gaurav Patel was looking to hire an engineer for his medical device startup in Houston this year, he searched for an American citizen because the tiny company didn’t have the budget to sponsor a foreigner for a work visa.
But though he cast a wide net, 80 percent of the eligible pool turned out to be foreigners. The only American applicants had decades of experience, not a good fit for the entry-level position. So Patel hired a 24-year-old from Mumbai who had just graduated with a master’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he specialized in robotics.
Last week, like hundreds of companies across Houston and the United States, Patel’s firm entered the mad scramble for the nation’s work visa program, known as H-1B, to secure the new employee a way to work here legally. The government started accepting such applications on April 1, but in recent years has received so many within five business days of the deadline that by law it must turn to a random lottery.
With thousands more applications than available visas, the stakes are high, particularly in Houston which is consistently among the top American cities seeking them. The visa allows foreign employees to work here for as long as six years, in which time their companies can sponsor them for a green card, and it’s the primary way of legal immigration to the United States unless you have relatives here.
Last year, more than 318,000 petitions for the visas were filed last year with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, though some were for renewals.
But only 85,000 new visas come available each year. Congress set a cap of 65,000 in 1990, and it was reached for the first time in 1997. Later, 20,000 visas just for foreign graduates of American universities were added. But in recent years, demand for the visas has far outpaced the supply, necessitating the computer-generated random selection.
“It shows us how broken our immigration system is,” said Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at the metropolitan policy program for The Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “Our system is not based on what it actually needs. It’s partly just based on luck.”
Need for the visas is urgent in Houston, with its huge oil and gas and biomedical sectors. Employers here in 2013 requested nearly 13,000 H-1B visas, the most in the country after New York City, according to an analysis of federal data by Myvisajobs.com. Nearly 6,000 were approved that year, a Brookings analysis found. One-fourth of all H-1B visa approvals that year went to just three metropolitan areas, New York, Dallas, and San Jose, where Silicon Valley is based.
This year, like recent years, immigration lawyers in Houston say they filed more applications than the year before, even despite tumbling oil prices, which depressed hiring at some of the city’s largest energy companies.
“We filed more than last year, more than 700,” said Charles Foster, chair of one of the nation’s largest immigration firms, Foster LLP, which has headquarters in Houston. “We would have filed even more than that but for the decline in the energy industry.”
At Reddy & Neumann, another immigration law firm here, Emily Neumann said they filed 600 such applications, the most they ever have, largely for Indian employees wanted by technology companies.
“There is a huge demand,” she said. “We are expecting this to be the largest number of filings in the 5-day window ever.”
Most politicians and business leaders agree more high-skilled visas are desperately needed because there simply aren’t enough qualified Americans in certain highly specialized industries, especially in the technology sector.
But critics, led by U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, contend tech companies are exploiting the idea of the shortage so they can hire foreign workers for lower wages than they would have to pay Americans. Proponents counter unemployment rates in industries hiring H-1B workers are usually very low and that those employees themselves are actually paid far more than U.S.-born workers of the same age and occupation.
The issue has also been muddied by the impasse over what to do with the 11 million immigrants who are here illegally, stalling comprehensive immigration reform in Washington, D.C.
Not able to raise cap
In response to the Dot-Com boom in the late 1990s, Congress did temporarily increase the work visa cap to 195,000 between 2001-2004.
But that provision expired and, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, so did the political will to encourage more legal immigration. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have tried to raise the cap as part of immigration reform, but failed. A provision in the Senate bill on immigration in 2013 would have expanded it to as much as 180,000 work visas a year, but the bill died in the House.
“There’s a lot of debate about whether it hurts native born workers or not,” said Ruiz of the Brookings Institution.
Part of the controversy, he said, lies in the fact that about half of all work visas go to Indian tech firms with companies in the U.S. and critics complain it’s a form of outsourcing.
Nevertheless, there’s certainly bipartisan support for lifting the cap. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, have proposed regional programs for allocating visas for high-skilled workers based on local labor market needs.
And outgoing Massachusetts governor, Deval Patrick, a Democrat, proposed a program to get around the H-1B cap by allowing foreign graduates of Massachusetts universities to start their businesses in the state.
In January, a bipartisan group of six senators filed a bill increasing the cap to as much as 195,000 new visas a year.
Ruiz said it stands a chance to pass this year because Republicans, who tend to favor increasing business immigration but oppose granting a legal status to immigrants here illegally, control both the House and Senate.
Proved his worth
Meanwhile, in Houston, Patel’s company, Cognita Labs, is building a device to more cheaply and easily diagnose respiratory illnesses. Key to their success, he said, is Dharmik Mehta, who began in January right after graduating and is working on a yearlong student visa while he waits to see if he’s approved for an H-1B.
“It was very clear he was making good progress,” said Patel of why the company sponsored Mehta for the visa. “It is very critical for us as a startup to retain the people who are making good progress.”