Work Visas Plunge in a Declining Economy

December 6, 2010

By Angel Booth and Veronica Garabelli
VCU Multimedia Journalism Masters Program

Soo Yeon Hong had one condition when negotiating her first industry job in the United States; that her employers grant her an H1-B visa.

sidebar.jpg“You hear from other international students how hard it is to get a job in the United States,” Hong said. “So that’s always on the top of your mind.”

Hong, a native of South Korea, sought this specialized worker’s visa after receiving her master’s degree from Syracuse University in 2001. Health Magazine saw potential in her graphic design skills and decided to sponsor her. She was chosen out of 200 applicants.

However, nowadays, companies aren’t hiring as many workers from overseas.

In Virginia, the number of H1-B visa applications has decreased nearly 50 percent from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2009, according to an analysis of data from the Foreign Labor Certification Data Center. Nationally, the number of visa applications dropped more than 30 percent.

“It’s a reflection of the economy,” said immigration attorney Edward Summers. “Employers just aren’t filling positions.”

This is a far cry from the prior year, when companies were grabbing up H1-B visas more than ever before.

For the 2008 fiscal year, which ran from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reached its quota for the number of visas it would allow on the first day of the deadline.

That limit is 65,000 visas for computer programmers, engineers and scientists, plus another 20,000 for foreigners who have obtained their master’s or higher in the U.S.

For the 2011 fiscal year, the agency reported nearly 15,000 visas are still available. One reason: the recession. At a time when U.S. citizens are concerned about jobs, some argue that the visa program has left educated, talented Americans unemployed.

Americans like Kevin Cook, who after working 28 years developing information systems, was laid off from his job at a Richmond-based corporation.

“I built it from the ground up. It was there, but I helped grow it,” Cook said about the development project he led.

He was replaced with four foreign workers: one on an H1-B visa and three in an outsourcing center in India.

“Companies don’t care about anything other than green,” said Cook, who believes the company replaced him to save money. “They’re not being patriotic. They’re not being more concerned about Americans; they’re only concerned about their bottom line.”

However, Summers said sponsoring a foreign worker can be more expensive than hiring an American.

“You have to spend several thousands of dollars on an H1-B visa,” Summers said. “It’s not cheaper, and it takes time.”

Proponents say the visas benefit the U.S. economy and American society — by bringing in smart, motivated people who contribute in many ways.

Motivated people like Hong, who is now on her second H1-B visa while teaching public relations, including graphic design, at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“I have this opportunity to teach, and it’s very rewarding. It’s very fulfilling,” Hong said. “I look for a job that gives me satisfaction, and it happened to be here right now.”

As for the claim that hiring foreigners is unpatriotic, Hong doesn’t believe that’s the case. Mechanisms are in place to ensure that companies are bringing in specialized workers, Hong said.

“The burden is on the employer to provide the document that says why they have to hire a foreigner,” Hong said. “It’s not like they can hire any foreigner. They have to justify, I guess, why they are hiring.”

Hong has lived in the United States for 15 years and is applying for her green card. However, she said she is not necessarily tied down to one place.

“If for some reason my heart tells me to go elsewhere, then maybe I’ll look into that place,” Hong said. “Not that I’m planning to do that right now.”

About the Data

This report was based on an analysis of data from the U.S. Foreign Labor Certification Data Center for fiscal years 2002 through 2009. The analysis examined only the number of H1-B applications submitted by employers. Not all applications submitted were certified and approved.

Click on the map below to see the number of H1-B visa applications per state.


Click on the image below to see the number of H1-B visa applications per state from 2002 to 2010.