H-1B Visa Program

Reforms Are Needed to Minimize the Risks and Costs of Current Program Gao ID: GAO-11-26 January 14, 2011

In Process

In most years, demand for new H-1B workers exceeded the cap: From 2000 to 2009, demand for new H-1B workers tended to exceed the cap, as measured by the numbers of initial petitions submitted by employers who are subject to the cap. There is no way to precisely determine the level of any unmet demand among employers, since they tend to stop submitting (and the Department of Homeland Security stops tracking) petitions once the cap is reached each year. When we consider all initial petitions, including those from universities and research institutions that are not subject to the cap, we find that demand for new H-1B workers is largely driven by a small number of employers. Over the decade, over 14 percent of all initial petitions were submitted by cap-exempt employers, and only a few employers (fewer than 1 percent) garnered over one-quarter of all H-1B approvals. Most interviewed companies said the H-1B cap and program created costs, but were not factors in their decisions to move R&D overseas: The 34 H-1B employers GAO interviewed reported that the cap has created some additional costs, though the cap's impact depended on the size and maturity of the company. For example, in years when visas were denied by the cap, most large firms reported finding other (sometimes more costly) ways to hire their preferred job candidates. On the other hand, small firms were more likely to fill their positions with different candidates, which they said resulted in delays and sometimes economic losses, particularly for firms in rapidly changing technology fields. Limitations in agency data and systems hinder tracking the cap and H-1B workers over time: The total number of H-1B workers in the U.S. at any one time--and information about the length of their stay--is unknown, because (1) data systems among the various agencies that process such individuals are not linked so individuals cannot be readily tracked, and (2) H-1B workers are not assigned a unique identifier that would allow for tracking them over time--particularly if and when their visa status changes. Restricted agency oversight and statutory changes weaken protections for U.S. workers: Elements of the H-1B program that could serve as worker protections--such as the requirement to pay prevailing wages, the visa's temporary status, and the cap itself--are weakened by several factors. First, program oversight is fragmented and restricted. Second, the H-1B program lacks a legal provision for holding employers accountable to program requirements when they obtain H-1B workers through a staffing company. Third, statutory changes made to the H-1B program have, in combination and in effect, increased the pool of H-1B workers beyond the cap and lowered the bar for eligibility. Taken together, the multifaceted challenges identified in this report show that the H-1B program, as currently structured, may not be used to its full potential and may be detrimental in some cases. This report offers several matters for congressional consideration, including that Congress re-examine key H-1B program provisions and make appropriate changes as needed. GAO also recommends that the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor take steps to improve efficiency, flexibility, and monitoring of the H-1B program. Homeland Security disagreed with two recommendations and one matter, citing logistical and other challenges; however, we believe such challenges can be overcome. Labor did not respond to our recommendations.


Our recommendations from this work are listed below with a Contact for more information. Status will change from "In process" to "Open," "Closed - implemented," or "Closed - not implemented" based on our follow up work.

Director: Andrew Sherrill Team: Government Accountability Office: Education, Workforce, and Income Security Phone: (202) 512-7252

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