Skilled Immigrants

The Workers the U.S. Wants


When some Americans talk about immigration, they picture those they want to keep out: undocumented people sneaking across the southern border. But when some U.S. businesses talk about immigration, they picture people they’d like to bring in: ones with science, math or technology skills, notable artists or those willing to pick tomatoes. The U.S. wants these workers. The problems come in deciding who and how many should be admitted.

The Situation

Facebook, Google, Intel and Cisco Systems are among the companies lobbying Congress to increase the number of technology workers, who enter the U.S. on H-1B visas. In fiscal 2016, it took just six days for the federal government to reach the 85,000 allotted petitions for H-1B visas for the year. The U.S. isn’t the only nation interested in wooing foreigners with skills: Canada, GermanySouth Africa and other countries are competing for tech talent. U.S. businesses bring in seasonal agriculture workers under the H-2A visa program; these are limited to 66,000 per fiscal year. Meanwhile, movie stars, distinguished academics and professional athletes face less trouble getting special U.S. work visas set aside for those with “extraordinary ability.” Extraordinary bank accounts allow the rich to receive visas if they’re willing to invest at least $500,000 in the U.S. and create at least 10 jobs within two years.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security
U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The Background

The U.S. system of immigration categories and caps has its roots in a 1924 law meant to curb a wave of post-World War I immigration. The law established a quota system limiting immigration from any one country to 2 percent of the number of people from that country already living in the U.S. in 1890, though it excluded Asian immigrants. The new restrictions coincided with the start of the Border Patrol. Quotas tightened after World War II as the U.S. faced a flood of Europeans fleeing Hitler and Communism. Congress later carved out special visas for certain nationalities. In 1990, for example, Senator Ted Kennedy, great-grandson of an Irish immigrant, helped establish  an annual visa lottery program that benefited Irish immigrants. Opposition to immigration tends to rise and fall with the state of the economy. In tough times, Americans desperate for work are none too happy to see businesses import laborers. Bad behavior can also sour Americans on immigrants: Canadian-born pop star Justin Bieber, living in the U.S. on an “extraordinary ability” visa, was arrested in 2014 for drunken drag racing,  prompting non-Beliebers to petition the White House calling for the singer to be deported.

The Argument

Both U.S. tech and agriculture employers say there are not enough Americans able to fill all the available jobs. Agriculture companies say crops are rotting in fields because there aren’t enough farmworkers after immigration crackdowns. U.S. tech employers say American universities aren’t producing enough mathematicians and engineers to keep pace with an economy producing 120,000 new jobs a year. Tech companies also ­­worry that stiffer global competition will make it more difficult to hire skilled workers in the future. Opponents point to an increase in U.S. students seeking degrees in science and technology-related fields and say the companies are just trying to avoid paying higher wages to American workers. They also say offshore outsourcing firms receive half of the H-1B visas, allowing workers to be trained in the U.S. who then take these tech jobs back to their home countries. To make its case, Facebook more than doubled its lobbying spending in 2014 from 2012. The U.S. Senate immigration reform bill passed in 2013 initially would have raised the annual H-1B visa limit to 135,000 from 85,000, and could increase in later years to 180,000. Some House Republicans didn’t like the sweep of the Senate bill, which included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and instead want to move separate legislation for the expansion of technology worker visas. Democrats who controlled the Senate resisted that approach; they want to use the promise of more H-1Bs as the sweetener to help get broader immigration reform legislation enacted. In November 2014, President Barack Obama used executive authority to expand a program that allows foreign graduates in science, technology, engineering and math to work in the U.S. for up to 29 months.

The Reference Shelf

  • Congressional Research Service study shows that the number of H-1B visas hasn’t kept pace with the growing enrollments of students from abroad studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the U.S.
  • Office of Foreign Labor Certification breakdown of H-1B visas workers by positions, employers and states.
  • The Immigration Policy Center guide to understanding the 2013 Senate immigration bill.
  • A Center for Global Development study showing seasonal agricultural workers create American jobs.
  • IMDB tracks British actors appearing in American TV shows.

First Published August 26, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Kathleen Hunter in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Anne Cronin at