Libbey Tucker and Sharif Ahmed are waiting to find out if they won the lottery, but not the multimillion-dollar payday kind.
They also have more at stake than a few dollars invested at the local convenience store. Tucker, who oversees information technology for the city of Chesterfield, is waiting to hear whether she can keep a valued employee.
Ahmed, a programmer who received a master’s degree last year from the University of Missouri, has his career on the line. He is one of 233,000 people whose employers applied this month for H-1B visas, which are for foreigners whose skills are in high demand.
The problem for Ahmed — and for the U.S. economy — is that H-1B demand vastly exceeds supply. The government begins accepting applications every April 1 for just 85,000 visas a year.
This year, it stopped taking applications April 7. In one week, the number of applications was almost triple the number of available visas.
Hence the lottery. Tucker has been told the city may wait four months to learn whether its application is successful.
Chesterfield hadn’t used the H-1B process before, she said. Last year, the city had been looking for a programmer for several weeks, even raising the salary range because it wasn’t getting qualified applicants.
Then Ahmed, a native of Bangladesh, applied. Knowing he could work temporarily under his student visa — but not fully understanding the complexity of the H-1B process — the city hired him last June.
“He was by far the best candidate,” Tucker says. “His work ethic is tremendous, and he has far exceeded expectations of what we needed him to do.”
Betsy Cohen, director of the Mosaic Project, hopes more employers here will follow Chesterfield’s example. In 2013, St. Louis ranked 42nd among 108 large cities in use of H-1B visas.
“We’re not stepping up to the bat as much as other regions,” Cohen says. “The talent goes and works where there are jobs and where the employers make the commitment to apply for these visas.”
As any veteran lottery player will tell you, those who don’t play can’t win. Mosaic has begun an informational campaign to help small employers understand the visa process, and can offer them a free one-hour consultation with a local immigration attorney.
What the group can’t do, unfortunately, is lower the lottery’s odds. That is up to Congress. The H-1B quota was 195,000 between 2001 and 2003, and the economy has grown as the number of visas has shrunk. This was the third year in a row that the annual quota was exceeded in a week.
Compete America, a coalition of technology companies, estimates that the visa limit costs the U.S. a million jobs. If companies could hire more immigrants with math and science skills, they would keep work in this country that now gets done abroad.
“The immigrants create economic value,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. “They’re not stealing a job from anybody; they end up creating opportunities for other people.”
Members of Congress have floated various bills to deal with the problem. One would raise the quota as demand grows. Another would hand a green card — or permanent residency — to foreigners who earn advanced math or science degrees here.
Holding on to more graduates like Ahmed would be good for employers and good for the economy. Instead of finding a way to do that, we’re handicapping ourselves with a lottery whose odds keep getting steeper.