nonimmigrant workers. For purposes of this report, the most significant nonimmigrant visa category is the H-1B visa. (Box 5.3 describes other important nonimmigrant visas.)

H-1B visas are available for a maximum of 6 years to foreign persons with skills in a “specialty occupation,” i.e., those that require both (a) theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge and (b) attainment of a bachelor's degree or higher (or its equivalent) in the specialized field as a minimum for entry into the occupation. Some of the fields included in “specialty occupation” include architecture, engineering, computer programming, accounting, medicine, teaching, and so on.

The theory underlying the H-1B program is that temporary workers play an important role in helping to meet workforce needs in times of labor market tightness. However, during slack labor markets, the presence of such workers can complicate efforts to ensure that qualified U.S. workers are able to find work. The time lines built into the H-1B program (6-year maximum, renewable once after 3 years) allow for a significant reduction in the H-1B workforce in 3 years (to 65,000 admitted per year, or a total of 390,000 H-1B visa holders in the steady state), assuming a concurrent decision to refrain from converting H-1Bs to permanent residency.16 Thus, in principle though perhaps not in practice, the program has a degree of built-in flexibility that policymakers can use to respond to serious recessions, during which labor markets tend to slacken.

Numbers of H-1B Visas and Workers The American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 (ACWIA) temporarily raised the level of temporary nonimmigrant H-1B visas from 65,000 (the cap level established in 1990) to 115,000 in FY1999 and FY2000, dropping it to 107,500 in FY2001, and then reverting to 65,000 in FY2002. Currently, proposed legislation would raise these caps again.

While data on H-1B visa holders are scarce, in February 2000 the INS released the results of a one-time study of H-1B visa holders,based on a random sampling of approximately 4,200 H-1B holders admittedduring the 15 months from May 1998 to July 1999.17 According to this survey, approximately 56.7 percent of H-1B visaholders were employed in occupations


Note that under international commitments that the United States has formalized under the General Agreement on Trade in Services, the United States is barred from lowering the H-1B limit below 65,000. This commitment is expressed in the U.S. Schedule of Commitments and List of MFN Exemptions in the Final Texts of the Uruguay Round of Multinational Trade Negotiations, signed on April 15, 1994, in Marrakech, Morocco.


U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. 2000. Characteristics of Specialty Occupation Workers (H-1B). Washington, D.C.: Immigration and Naturalization Service, February.

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