H-1B Visa Program:

Multifaceted Challenges Warrant Re-examination of Key Provisions

GAO-11-505T: Published: Mar 31, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 31, 2011.

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This testimony comments on the H-1B program. Congress created the current H-1B program in 1990 to enable U.S. employers to hire temporary, foreign workers in specialty occupations. The law capped the number of H-1B visas issued per fiscal year at 65,000, although the cap has fluctuated over time with legislative changes. The H-1B cap and the program itself have been a subject of continued controversy. Proponents of the program argue that it allows companies to fill important and growing gaps in the supply of U.S. workers, especially in the science and technology fields. Opponents of the program argue that there is no skill shortage and that the H-1B program displaces U.S. workers and undercuts their pay. Others argue that the eligibility criteria for the H-1B visa should be revised to better target foreign nationals whose skills are undersupplied in the domestic workforce. Our comments in this statement for the record are based on the results of our recent examination of the H-1B program, highlighting the key challenges it presents for H-1B employers, H-1B and U.S. workers, and federal agencies. Specifically, this statement presents information on (1) employer demand for H-1B workers; (2) how the H-1B cap impacts employers' costs and whether they move operations overseas; (3) the government's ability to track the cap and H-1B workers over time; and (4) how well the provisions of the H-1B program protect U.S. workers.

From 2000 to 2009, the demand for new H-1B workers tended to exceed the cap, as measured by the numbers of initial petitions submitted by employers who are subject to the cap. While the majority (68 percent) of employers was approved for one H-1B worker, demand was driven to a great extent by a small number (fewer than 1 percent) of H-1B employers garnering over one quarter of all H-1B approvals. Cap-exempt employers, such as universities and research institutions, submitted over 14 percent of the initial petitions filed during this period. Most of the 34 H-1B employers GAO interviewed reported that the H-1B program and cap created additional costs for them, such as delays in hiring and projects, but said the global marketplace and access to skilled labor--not the cap--drive their decisions on whether to move activities overseas. Limitations in agency data and systems hinder tracking the cap and H-1B workers over time. For example, data systems among the various agencies that process these individuals are not linked so it is difficult to track H-1B workers as they move through the immigration system. System limitations also prevent the Department of Homeland Security from knowing precisely when and whether the annual cap has been reached each year. Provisions of the H-1B program that could serve to protect U.S. workers--such as the requirement to pay prevailing wages, the visa's temporary status, and the cap itself--are weakened by several factors. First, program oversight is fragmented between four agencies and restricted by law. Second, the H-1B program lacks a legal provision for holding employers accountable to program requirements when they obtain H-1B workers through a staffing company--a company that contracts out H-1B workers to other companies. Third, statutory changes made to the H-1B program over time--i.e. that broadened job and skill categories for H-1B eligibility, increased exceptions to the cap, and allowed unlimited H-1B visa extensions while holders applied for permanent residency--have in effect increased the pool of H-1B workers beyond the cap and lowered the bar for eligibility.

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