US: Responding to the 'brain drain' reversal

How can the purportedly slowing rate of H-1B visa applications to the US State Department since April 2010 be interpreted? A recent article in Fortune magazine suggests that the reversal of the so-called "brain drain" points to a worrying trend related both to perceived long-term consequences of the current economic recession and the waning appeal of the specialised job market in the US.

Traditionally reserving a quota of 65,000 out of the millions of non-immigrant visas granted in the US each year, H-1B visas are granted to those with specialised knowledge - usually postgraduates taking jobs in science and industry, but also including professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

Because H-1B visa holders have been petitioned and sponsored by American employers, they are entitled to apply for green cards and permanent residency in the US.

Whereas in previous years the US State Department has increased - even doubled - the quota of such visas to meet the demand, this year things appear to be getting off to sluggish start. According to the article, only 18,000 applications were made in the first month of the current calendar year, suggesting that the target quota may not be reached.

Although numbers failed to recover fully since visa restrictions were imposed after the terrorist attacks in 2001, they were beginning to improve until another downward trend began in 2008. Thus, while more than 118,000 H-1B visas were granted in 2002, only 107,196 were granted in 2003.

Averaging around 132,000 between 2004 and 2006, they reached a peak in 2007 at 154,053. But, since then, they have slipped to 129,464 in 2008 and further down to 110,367 in 2009.

More than 110,000 non-immigrant H-1B visas were granted in 2009, representing 2.2% of all the visas issued by the US Department of State that year.

From 2008 to 2009, nearly 23% fewer Indians applied for H-1B visas (from 56% to 50% of the total number of applications). Since the late 1990s, India has been the overwhelming leader in terms of the number of skilled graduates who have applied to work temporarily in the US.

By contrast, specialised workers from the second leading host country, China, have been granted rather more H-1B visas since the onset of the economic recession, with the percentage of the total actually having risen from around 5% from 2000-04 to nearly 8% in 2009.

Asians continue to be granted - overall - the largest percentage of H-1B visas, even though the actual number of applications has dropped steadily since 2007. Proportionally, however, this decrease is not significant compared to other regions worldwide. As such, 75% of all the visas granted in 2009 went to specialised graduates from Asian countries, up from 62% in 2003 but slightly down from 77% in 2008.

This shift to increased numbers of Asian applicants is matched by declines elsewhere. For instance, nearly one-fifth of all applicants in 2000 came from Europe; but, by 2008, H-1B visa granting rates had slipped to 12%. Although the overall percentage had increased to nearly 14% in 2009, the overall numbers were down.

The trend is found elsewhere: people in Africa, Oceania, and North and South America consistently have made fewer and fewer H-1B visa applications.

Traditionally, businesses have encouraged the influx of H-1B visa holders for their ability to help encourage innovation and competitiveness, thus stimulating the economy and ensuring that the US maintain its supremacy over science and industry.

Fewer applications thus appear to point to other problems that can only be addressed by immigration reform, says the Fortune magazine article.

Many people are approved for H-1B visas who lack "specialised skills", or the equivalent of a US high school diploma. The vastly excessive annual "limit" on H-1B visas, such as it is, is over 85,000, not 65,00 and reporting it as 65,000 would be misleading.

In 2009, 86,300 new H-1B visa applications were approved, and 127,971 renewals and extensions issued. In 2004 the corresponding figures were 130,497 new, and 156,921 renewed or extended.

Studies by researchers from Columbia, the Computing Research Association, Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the RAND Corporation, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rutgers, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Stanford, the State University of New York Buffalo, University of California Davis, the Wharton School, the Urban Institute, and the US Department of Education Office of Education Research & Improvement have reported that the US has been producing more US citizen STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) workers than the US has been employing in these fields.

There is no "brain drain", but a surplus of US citizens with PhDs, and an even bigger surplus of US citizens with master's and bachelor's degrees in STEM fields.


Although the United States has been producing more engineering students as stated in an earlier comment, most of them are far less hardworking than their H1-B counterpart.

I supervise both an H1B worker and a US citizen. While the H1-B worker puts in lot of hours (and they are all productive), the US citizen barely touches 5 p.m.

I must say that such truculent criticism of H1B is really not justified.