H-1B Visa: A History of the Specialty Occupation Visa Category

HIGHLIGHTS
  • 1990: 65,000 available visas
  • 1998: 115,000 available visas
  • 2001: 195,000 available visas
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H-1B visas are the most popular form of U.S. work authorization. Want to know who that came to be? Read on.

Every year around April 1, that number is top of mind for foreign nationals applying for work visas, as well as the employers who sponsor them. While U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received nearly 233,000 applications for the H-1B Person in Specialty Occupation visa in 2015, only 65,000 were selected and approved in a random lottery, which opened and closed in seven days.

But the H-1B visa didn’t always have a time-sensitive filing process. The visa quota has teetered back and forth throughout the program’s history, each time a response to the wax and wane of demand for skilled labor.

Let’s take a look at cap seasons past and learn how the visa’s availability differed throughout time.

1990: 65,000 available visas
The H-1 temporary worker visa program was originally established in the 1950s to grant foreign individuals with “distinguished merit and ability” an opportunity to find legal employment inside the United States. It was amended by the Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT), a measure that added the specialty occupation requirement – which means the job must require a bachelor’s degree or higher, or equivalent work experience, in a specialized field – and the visa’s dual intent status, which allows petitioners to seek legal permanent residency (a green card) while petitioning for and holding their temporary resident status. With recommendations from industry leaders and academics, the act also established the 65,000-visa cap.

1998: 115,000 available visas
In 1997, the H-1B cap was reached for the first time. This helped spark the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998, which was enacted in Oct. 2008. It expanded the cap by 50,000 visas, boosting it to 115,000 for the next three years.

2001: 195,000 available visas
As technology and Internet-related industries comprised an increasing part of the U.S. economy in the early 2000s, a greater need emerged for workers skilled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Employers had difficulty recruiting for these positions locally, yet found that foreign nationals from China and India could fill their talent gaps. Policymakers pushed for another expansion of the H-1B work program when the visa increase enacted by the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 expired.

The American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act passed in 2000, adding 80,000 petition slots to the quota and giving employers a greater opportunity to land skilled foreign talent. The act also added a cap exemption to H-1B beneficiaries working at an institution of higher education, a government research organization or a related nonprofit entity.

2004-2015: 65,000 available visas
In 2003, when the expansion of the visa program was set to expire, there was a shift in political support for the program. Due to a growing perception that the H-1B program took away jobs from U.S. workers, the Bush administration declined to renew the cap expansion and allowed it to revert to its original 65,000 limit — where the number still stands today. President George W. Bush also signed the L-1 Visa and H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004 into law, a measure requiring employers to pay 100 percent of the prevailing wage, a salary standard set by industry comparisons. This helped ensure companies weren’t seeking to save on wage expenses by hiring foreign workers at a low rate.

What’s next for the H-1B work visa program?
The proponents of the Immigration Innovation Act of 2015 would like the cap set between 115,000 and 195,000 visas to meet market conditions. However, the bill hasn’t been put to a vote since it was introduced early last year. In an effort to assuage public concern about foreign talent encroaching on American jobs, a group of senators introduced bipartisan legislation to refine the program to give greater job priority to high-skilled American workers.

The upcoming presidential election may have an impact on the direction of the H-1B program, as immigration overall is a top issue for many of the candidates.