Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Mar 04, 2017
Critics rail that the H1B programme has strayed from its original purpose and become a parking spot for 'aliens' with no clear expiry date.
#H1B: Pet theory and the numbers that match This is the third part in the series — Visas on Planet Trump. Read the first part ► The post-Trump H1B visa tip sheet Read the second part ► Spouses of H1B workers are a worried lot

"See something, say something," posters in America's crowded public spaces goad us.

That's precisely why there's so much agitation roiling temporary worker visas in the US — critics rail that the H1B programme has strayed from its original purpose and become a parking spot for 'aliens' with no clear expiry date.

During the subprime crisis which led to the crash of 2008, those who knew the flakiness of the market bore the least risk. Americans edgy about temporary worker visas are pushing back because they see now-familiar risk patterns (and sketchy uses) of temporary worker visas where H1B plays a lead role.

L1 visas are also used in plenty by Indian IT companies, but don't attract outsize attention because of clear entry and exit dates and little room for manoeuvre.

When Trump's teammates say immigration, they mean both illegal and legal. When they say H1B workers, they mean not just the newbies, but the universal set of H1Bs. These are two very different data sets and different personas of the H1B worker.

If you are still in doubt, take this pop quiz: You go to a corner shop and buy two items — say a pencil and an eraser which cost $1.10 together. The pencil costs $1 more than the eraser. How much does the eraser cost? The easy answer is 10 cents, but only if the answer is five pence are both conditions of the question satisfied.

Odd example for an H1B problem, but symptomatic of how easily you can go chasing after a wrong data set, which seems intuitive, but is actually biased towards more readily available information rather than what we actually need to solve for. Depending on which numbers we choose, we can upgrade our pet theories to irrelevance though they may still be a mildly compelling read if confirmation bias can align neatly with data. These cognitive traps are all too common.

The most often quoted filler in every H1B story — that the United States offers 85,000 H1B visas every year, most of which are snapped up by Indian outsourcers — whose employees fill a skill gap in US engineering (fashion models qualify under H1B too) — is raw data that does not explain the pushback.

These below numbers, based on data compiled by, are more specific to the prevailing angst: Between 2012 and 2015, the three big Indian outsourcing firms — TCS, Wipro and Infosys — submitted over 150,000 visa applications for jobs that paid a median salary of $69,500. What are the corresponding numbers for America's five tech giants: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft? They submitted 31,000 applications and claimed they would pay a median salary of $117,000.

Graph1 Data courtesy: US Department of Homeland Security

Just to put this in context of the American job market, $70,000 is what a nurse with a year's experience earns at Johns Hopkins Hospital, $60,000 is what a journalism school topper can earn on his first rodeo. And we are talking here of "highly-skilled" tech workers.

Although lower wage rates to H1Bs are gets lot of play in news media, that's just one grouse. It's when new H1Bs cease to remain so new and roll over into their second three year term that they often change how they operate.

Having been around for a bit, they come into their own, they move on from their first employer, they scatter far and wide, "they never go back," as one India returnee says. It's equally these so called "high-skilled" H1B folks who are the subject of American lawmakers' ire.

New entrants each year are far more likely to stay the course and will be wary of playing the market.

A leaked document from the Trump administration sets the agenda as national interest, but make no mistake, this is just a mini version of several long form rants that are now introduced as bills in the US Congress.

Even if those bills die a legislative death, the message is already loud and clear to temporary workers — the good old Obama days are over.

"Our country's immigration policies should be designed and implemented to serve, first and foremost, the US national interest. Visa programmes for foreign workers.. should be administered in a manner that protects the civil rights of American workers and current lawful residents, and that prioritises the protection of American workers — our forgotten working people — and the jobs they hold."

In 2015, only 17 percent of H1Bs went to the top seven Indian companies, reports The Economic Times. "In total, fewer than 15,000 slots, not enough to fill a big stadium in America." Exactly. So those 15,000 or 17 percent of H1Bs distract from the 'silent majority' of H1Bs who are not new arrivals, who dot America's burbs, sometimes spotted on a red eye to India, where they may do time for all of two or three weeks and go back whining about traffic snarls and wifi connectivity.

Graph2 Data courtesy: US Department of Homeland Security

One of the many H1B focused bills introduced in the US Congress this January include one called: the 'S.180 — H-1B and L1 Visa Reform Act of 2017'.

Sample excerpt

Section 106. Speciality Occupation to Require an Actual Degree

Section 214 (i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC 1184(i)) is amended:

  • In paragraph,
  • By amending subparagraph, and
  • Point B that reads: "(B) attainment of a bachelor's or higher degree in the specific specialty directly related to the occupation as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States."

Section 109. Limitation on Extension of H1B Petition

Section 214(g)(4) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 USC 1184(g)(4)) is amended. See below:

"(4) (A) Except as provided in subparagraph (B), the period of authorised admission as a nonimmigrant described in section 101(a)(15)(H)(i)(b) may not exceed three years."

"(B) The period of authorised admission as a nonimmigrant described in sub-paragraph (A) who is the beneficiary of an approved employment-based immigrant petition under section 204(a)(1)(F) may be authorised for a period of up to three additional years if the total period of stay does not exceed six years, except for an extension under section 104(c) or 106(b) of the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-first Century Act of 2000 (8 USC 1184 note)."

The numbers inside these bills are simple and lethal, they cut to the heart of the current debate: How many years have you studied? Have you studied exactly that subject in which you claim you are highly skilled? How many years can an H1B worker legally remain in the US? How many ways are H1B shops circumventing the rules?

For H1B workers and their employers' legal teams, it's a blessing that the swotters writing these bills haven't found a method to compress the red flags from here into tweets tagging Donald Trump.

When that happens, expect fireworks for non-immigrant aliens on Planet Trump.

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Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan

Nikhila Natarajan is Senior Programme Manager for Media and Digital Content with ORF America. Her work focuses on the future of jobs current research in ...

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Pradyot Ranjan Jena

Pradyot Ranjan Jena

Pradyot Ranjan Jena Associate Professor National Institute of Technology Karnataka

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