On April 1st, the federal government will begin accepting petitions for hiring workers on the H-1B visa–a temporary visa for skilled workers. H-1B visas for highly skilled workers are annually limited to 85,000 for private firms. There is no numerical limit for H-1Bs employed at non-profit research institutions affiliated with universities. The numerical cap for private firms was reached in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 within seven days after applications could be submitted. During poor economic times, the visa cap can take months to fill, but it does do so without fail except for the years 2001 to 2003 when the cap was increased to 195,000 annually during a poor economy.[i]
There are obvious economic benefits from adding more skilled workers so the numbers should be expanded greatly, preferably without government-created limits. Taking a page from the Senate’s 2013 immigration reform bill (S. 744), one way to expand the numbers and adjust them annually based on market conditions would be through a formula that takes into account labor market conditions. The formula could be a big improvement to the current system but it also carries several risks.
There are some rules of thumb the government should follow if it chooses to create such a formula. It should be simple and based on publicly available economic data like the unemployment rate. The formula should not include variables such as the opinions of various stakeholders or appointed officials. For example, unions or technology firms should not be able to pull a number from their respective black boxes to influence the outcome: any decision should be purely based on publicly available economic data. Finally, if guest worker visas are assigned to sector- or occupation-specific areas of the economy, the economic data applicable to that sector of occupation should be the only data relevant in calculating the number of visas issued.