H-1B visa of the US is the most sought-after work visa around the world. Though the official annual cap of new H-1B approved applications is 65,000 only, the actual number of approved H-1B petitions is multiple times this number because of the exemptions. The share of India-born applicants increased to more than 70% among H-1B approved in both 2020 & 2021.
An H-1B temporary worker is generally a noncitizen admitted to the United States of America (US) to perform services in a “specialty occupation.” The US legislation defines a specialty occupation as an occupation that requires theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge, and attainment of a bachelor’s or higher degree in the specific specialty (or its equivalent) as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States. In simple terms, an H-1B visa is a non-immigrant visa that lets companies and offices in the US employ foreign workers who require specialized knowledge or at least a bachelor’s degree or work experience.
Every year, tens of thousands of highly skilled workers are hired, predominantly, from India and China, by companies in the US. The employers file an H-1B petition for a noncitizen to perform services following certain procedures laid down by the prevailing rules. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) publishes an annual report, ‘Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers’, which provides numbers pertaining to H-1B immigration visas concerning the countries of origin, occupations, educational levels, and compensation, of noncitizens who were issued visas or otherwise provided nonimmigrant status under H-1B visa during the previous fiscal year. The fiscal year in the US is from October to September, i.e., FY 2021 is the period from 01 October 2020 to 30 September 2021.
A yearly cap of H-1B visas is 65,000 but the actual number is much more
The H-1B visa is issued for an initial period of 3 years which can be extended to 6 years, though there are exemptions for certain categories. Petitions are filed by employers with the US Department of Homeland Security. It is filed by an employer for either sponsoring the employee for an initial period of H-1B employment or for extending the authorized stay of a noncitizen residing in the US with an immigrant visa. If an immigrant changes jobs, an employer may file the petition yet again for them though they already hold the H-1B visa. Hence, the number of approved petitions in a fiscal year can be greater than the number of noncitizens who are provided the visa. The immigrants should either change their visas or leave the country once the permitted period ends.
The H-1B visa was first introduced in 1990 when the Immigration Act, 1990 was passed. Only a maximum of 65,000 foreign individuals could be issued an H1-B visa in each fiscal year. Extension of the existing H1-B visa, request filed following a change in employer, and other instances where a noncitizen has already been counted earlier are not included in the 65,000 ceiling. Additionally, visa petitions for public or non-profit institutions, higher education, or research work in such institutions are not included in the limit.
The yearly limit in the number of H-1B visas to be issued was increased to 1.15 lakh in 1999 and 2000, and further increased to 1.95 lakhs in the following years- 2001 to 2003. However, in 2004, the ceiling was brought down to 65,000 and has been the same since then.
Furthermore, a reform was brought in 2004 to not include 20,000 H-1B petitions filed for noncitizens who earned a master’s or higher degree from the US, in the annual ceiling. In other words, 20,000 H-1B petitions can be filed on behalf of noncitizens who have earned a master’s or higher degree from a US institution of higher education which would not be counted in the 65,000 cap.
Other exemptions based on international trade agreements and work with the Department of Defence are also extended. All this means that the number of approved H-1B petitions in any given year is far more than the cap of 65,000.
The number of petitions for H-1B has been increasing
A total of 62.02 lakh petitions for H-1B visas were filed between 2003 and 2021 and 56.83 lakh visas were approved, about 91%. Since 2003, the number of H-1B visa petitions filed and the number approved have witnessed a generally increasing trend, though the annual numbers show no consistent trend. The number of petitions has almost doubled in the 19 years for which data has been compiled from the annual reports published by USCIS. The number of petitions filed was 2.31 lakhs in 2003 which touched an all-time high of 4.27 lakhs in 2020. In 2021, the number dropped to 3.98 lakhs, the lowest since 2016. On the other hand, the number of petitions approved for H-1B visas also almost doubled in the 19 years- from 2.17 lakh in 2003 to 4.07 lakh in 2021. The number of petitions approved exceeded the number of petitions in 2005, 2011, and 2021.
The number of petitions approved was exceptionally lower than petitions filed in 2010 and 2018. In 2010, the US government issued a memorandum on what constitutes a valid employer-employee relationship to qualify for the H-1B ‘specialty occupation’ classification. Similarly, in 2018 the government issued another memorandum on contract and itinerary requirements to be read with the 2010 memorandum to strengthen protections preventing abuse of the visa.
India is the country of origin for 74% of the persons whose H-1B petition is approved
Throughout the 19-year period (2003 to 2021), India is the country of birth for most persons whose H-1B petitions were approved, followed by China & Canada. Of the total number of petitions approved, India’s share was 36.4% in 2003 which increased to around 74% in 2020 and 2021. In 2016, the share of persons born in India was 80%, the highest during this period. Except in 2003, the number of petitions approved for persons whose country of birth is India has been more than a lakh every year.
On the other hand, the share of persons whose country of birth is China and whose H-1B visa petition is approved was above 9% between 2003 and 2005, which dropped to 7.6% in 2012 and increased to 12% in 2020 and 2021. During this period, the share of persons born in Canada with approved visa petitions dropped from 5% in 2003 to less than 1% in 2020 and 2021.
Except in the case of India and China, the number of petitions approved for persons whose place of birth is countries such as Mexico, Pakistan, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Philippines, the UK, South Korea, and Canada has been on a decline. This is because of the decline in the number of H-1B petitions filed on behalf of persons born in these countries. These countries are part of the top-10 in terms of H-1B petitions approved during this period.
Data on the number of petitions filed in terms of country of birth is available for the period between 2007 and 2019. During this period, the number of petitions filed by persons who were born in India has increased by 88% from 1.66 lakh in 2007 to 3.14 lakh in 2019 whereas the number of petitions approved increased by 47% from 1.47 lakh in 2007 to 2.78 lakh in 2019. Similarly, China also saw an increase in petitions filed by 47% and approvals by 51%. Other countries have witnessed a significant decline in petitions filed which is also reflected in the number of approved petitions. For instance, South Korea saw a decline in petitions filed from 10,730 in 2007 to 3,928 in 2019 and the Philippines witnessed a decline in petitions filed from 12,230 in 2007 to 2,736 in 2019 in the said period.
More than 1 lakh petitions filed annually for initial employment
The total number of petitions filed every year includes both “initial employment” and “continuing employment”. Initial employment refers to the petitions filed for new H-1B employment with an employer. Petitions filed for concurrent employment filed for H-1B workers who are planning to work simultaneously for an additional H-1B employer are also counted under initial employment. “Continuing employment” petitions are those petitions filed seeking extensions, amendments, and sequential employment, for those noncitizens who are already residing in the country.
A total of 24.03 lakh petitions were filed for initial employment between 2003 and 2021. In each of these years, more than 1 lakh petitions were filed were initial employment except in 2010. During the same period, 21.66 lakh petitions were approved for initial employment. In 2018, only two-thirds of the petitions filed for initial employment have been approved whereas in 2007 and 2021, it is more than 100%. A total of 37.99 lakh petitions for continuing employment were filed between 2003 & 2021 of which 35.17 lakh were approved. The number of petitions filed for continuing employment has been consistently increasing from 1.2 lakh in 2003 to 3 lakh in 2020 and 2.85 lakh in 2021 while the number approved went up from 1.12 lakh in 2003 to 2.83 lakh in 2021.
In the case of petitions filed for initial employment, the share of petitions filed on behalf of persons born in India was 28% in 2003 which crossed 60% in 2021. For continuing employment category, this has been around 80% since 2016, up from 45.5% in 2003.
The share of Women applicants has also increased
The data by gender of persons whose H-1B petitions are approved is available for 2020 and 2021. The share of females whose H-1B petitions were approved was 26% in 2020 which has increased to 28% in 2021. The share of females from India has also increased from 21% to 23% in these two years. The share of females from China has been the highest across the top ten countries. The share of females from China whose petitions are approved has increased from 45% in 2020 to 46% in 2021.
More than two-thirds of the H-1B petitions approved in terms of occupation were for computer-related jobs in 2020 and 2021, while Architecture, Engineering, and Surveying accounted for little above 9% in both years.
Featured Image: Share of Indian applicants in H-1B approved applications