H-1B Foreign Workers:

Better Tracking Needed to Help Determine H-1B Program's Effects on U.S. Workforce

GAO-03-883: Published: Sep 10, 2003. Publicly Released: Oct 2, 2003.

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The continuing use of H-1B visas, which allow employers to fill specialty occupations with highly skilled foreign workers, has been a contentious issue between U.S. workers and employers during the recent economic downturn. The H- 1B program is of particular concern to these groups because employment has substantially decreased within information technology occupations, for which employers often requested H-1B workers. In light of these concerns, GAO sought to determine (1) what major occupational categories H- 1B beneficiaries were approved to fill and what is known about H-1B petition approvals and U.S. citizen employment from 2000-2002; (2) what factors affect employers' decisions about the employment of H-1B workers and U.S. workers; and (3) what is known about H-1B workers' entries, departures, and changes in visa status.

H-1B beneficiaries were approved to fill a variety of positions in 2002, and the number of approved petitions (i.e., employer requests to hire H-1B beneficiaries) in certain occupations has generally declined along with the economic downturn, as have U.S. citizen employment levels in these occupations. In contrast with 2000, most H-1B beneficiaries in 2002 were approved to fill positions in fields not directly related to information technology, such as economics, accounting, and biology. Both the number of H-1B petition approvals and U.S. citizens employed in certain occupations, such as systems analysts and electrical engineers, decreased from 2001 to 2002. GAO contacted 145 H-1B employers, and the majority of the 36 employers that agreed to speak with GAO said that they recruited, hired, and retained workers based on the skills needed, rather than the applicant's citizenship or visa status. Despite increases in unemployment, most employers said that finding workers with the skills needed in certain science-related occupations remains difficult. Although some employers acknowledged that H-1B workers might work for lower wages than their U.S. counterparts, the extent to which wage is a factor in employment decisions is unknown. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has incomplete information on H-1B worker entries, departures, and changes in visa status. As a result, DHS is not able to provide key information needed to oversee the H-1B program and its effects on the U.S. workforce, including data on the number of H-1B workers in the United States at any time. GAO also found that DHS's ability to provide information on H-1B workers is limited because it has not issued consistent guidance or any regulations on the legal status of unemployed H- 1B workers seeking new jobs. Allowing unemployed H-1B workers to remain in the United States may have implications for the labor force competition faced by U.S. workers. While DHS has long-term plans for providing better information on H-1B workers, policymakers in the interim need data to inform discussions on program changes.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: With regard to the first part of GAO's recommendation, DHS officials in 2004 changed the standard operating procedures and trained staff to ensure that prior visa status and occupational information is consistently entered into the current system, the Computer Linked Application Information System 3 (CLAIMS 3). With regard to the second part of GAO's recommendation, DHS is in the early stages of its U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Transformation Program. One specified objective is to provide for the person-centric collection, storage, and dissemination of information on applicants for immigration and citizenship--a comprehensive view of the history of an individual's interaction with DHS. This multi-year initiative is to be implemented in increments, with increment 4 (nonimmigrants, which includes the H-1B visa population) planned for fiscal year 2012, following increments 1 (citizenship), 2 (immigrants), and 3 (humanitarian entrants).

    Recommendation: To provide better information on H-1B workers and their status changes, the Secretary of Homeland Security should take actions to ensure that information on prior visa status and occupations for permanent residents and other employment-related visa holders is consistently entered into their current tracking systems, and that such information becomes integrated with entry and departure information when planned tracking systems are complete.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency drafted language to implement this recommendation. This is part of a larger regulatory package, however, that is currently being internally reviewed and developed in DHS. The title of the regulatory package is "Implementation of the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act of 2000, the Visa Waiver Permanent Program Act, and the American Competitiveness and Workplace Improvement Act of 1998." This regulatory package is included on DHS' unified agenda of regulatory actions, which indicates that the agency is working to finalize this regulatory package.

    Recommendation: In order to improve program management, the Secretary of Homeland Security should issue regulations that address the extent to which unemployed H-1B workers are allowed to remain in the United States while seeking other employment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services


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