The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 1, 2013

A Tale of Two Visas: Different protections for US workers in the W and H-1B visa programs under immigration reform

May 1, 2013


Congress’s immigration reform bill introduces changes to temporary worker visas. Most notable is the new type of work visa—the W visa—that fills a gap between visas for high-skilled foreign workers and those for agricultural workers. Reforms are also proposed to the H-1B visa program for temporary highly skilled workers. However, these two visas do not afford similar protections to U.S. workers and differ in how they affect the ability of American workers to compete for jobs.

Let’s compare…

W visas are for workers in jobs that require little to medium preparation. Construction workers, child care workers, bartenders, carpet installers, butchers, and dental hygienists, for example, could fall under the W program. Computer-related jobs and jobs that require a college degree are excluded from this program. W visaholders are allowed to remain in the United States for up to three years as a nonimmigrant, with the possibility of another three-year extension. The number of visas will start at 20,000 and go up to 75,000 after four years, with a cap of 200,000 thereafter.

The H-1B program offers nonimmigrant visas to skilled workers in specialty occupations, such as computers analysts, engineers, and company managers. Congress’s proposed bill almost doubles the number of H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000. It also increases from 20,000 to 25,000 the number of visas going to to foreign-born U.S. graduates with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Both these changes—the creation of the W visa and the increase in H-1B visas—respond to employer concerns that there are not enough workers to fill vacancies and strikes a balance between the need for high-skilled workers and lower-skilled labor. But there are differences between these two visa programs that do not seem to be driven by economics and that may affect the protections these programs offer to American workers.

Which occupations need workers?

Congress’s plan for W visas includes the creation of the Bureau of Immigration and Labor Market Research, which would fall under the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. One of the Bureau’s principal roles will be figuring out which occupations have worker shortages, which will help determine how many W visas will be assigned.

No such determination is required in the H-1B program. For H-1B visas, the employer’s actions are enough to attest worker scarcity. Why is a governmental agency determining shortages for lower- and medium-skilled jobs but not for high-skilled ones? The less stringent way of attesting scarcity in the H-1B visa program may affect the ability of U.S. workers to compete for these positions.

Training funds for U.S. workers

Under immigration reform, some of the fees collected for H-1B visas will be dedicated to training American workers in science, technology, engineering, and math. In the W visa program, fees collected will go toward maintaining the new bureau. Why aren’t some of the W visa fees being used to support training programs for lower-skilled workers? Resources are limited for workforce development for lower-skilled workers. Visa fees could be used to boost the training and employment chances of U.S. workers in the occupations targeted by the W program.

Gauging unemployment conditions

Another difference between H-1B visas and W visas is the unemployment information used to guide visa allocations. The suggested H-1B High Skilled Jobs Demand Index takes into consideration the percentage change in the number of unemployed persons in “management professional and related occupations” only. The W visa index incorporates information on all unemployed persons and job openings. Why isn’t the W index tailored to the unemployment of lower and medium -skilled workers, the W visa’s targeted occupations? Overall unemployment figures aren’t specific enough to figure out how W visas will affect the employment chances of U.S. workers.

In my opinion, the H-1B and W visa programs should be guided by similar principles in order to provide similar protections for high- and lower–skilled U.S. workers.

Immigration documents image from Shutterstock


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