H-1B Lottery: Foreign Workers’ Strategic Path to Immigration

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' main office in Chicago. April 1 is the date when USCIS begin accepting new h1b visa quota based applications. (Yunfei Zhao / MEDILL)

By Yunfei Zhao

International college students fully expect to go back home when they graduate — that’s the deal — except when it’s not.

That’s when things get interesting for federal immigration officials running the H-1B visa program that allows international workers to take jobs at U.S. companies. Then, the deal is those jobs can only be filled by workers who have special skills American workers cannot provide.

With a looming April 1 deadline to apply for the H-1B visa program, that line is getting long and antsy. In 2015, among about 233,000 H-1B visa applicants, 65,000 of the foreign workers were permitted to continue working in the U.S.

Indeed, walking through an H-1B visa application process is a popular path to immigration for many individuals, said Chicago immigration attorney Justin Hoefflicker.

“The number of H-1B visas that the government awards is a very political issue,” according to Justin Osadjan, Roosevelt University’s director of international programs. “There is some opposition to the program with claims that these are foreign workers coming into the U.S.A. and taking jobs that the Americans can do.”

When Jian Yang graduated from the University of Washington, she strategically attended graduate school at the University of Chicago because her research showed she had a higher chance to get an H-1B visa in Chicago.

“When you look for a job, you have to consider whether the company sponsors H-1B visas,” said Yang.

“If your final goal is to stay here, you don’t even care who you work for,” said Yang, who works for a major financial services firm. “As long as you are in your field, you should work for whoever sponsors your visa.”

For employers, offering a job with H-1B sponsorship is a method of attracting highly skilled candidates from foreign countries, and this happens more likely in a city where the demand exceeds the supply. With that knowledge and knowing she would have a greater chance of landing a finance job in Chicago, Yang strategically set her sights on the U of C. It worked.

“The number of H-1B visas that the government awards is a very political issue.” —Justin Osadjan, Roosevelt University’s director of international programs

Although applicants have to go through a lottery process, there are unequal chances of acceptance. Professional workers usually have priority. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors have three chances over three years to participate in the lottery, unlike non-STEM students, who only have one year.

The reason Yang, like many others, attended graduate school is because master’s degree candidates are part of a preferred pool: “Around 20,000 of the H-1Bs are given to master’s applicants,” said Osadjan, then the rest of 45,000 slots are randomly selected from pool of master’s who were not accepted in the first round plus the bachelor’s applicants.

STEM graduates are highly sought because of a lack of qualified American technical workers.

“There is more emphasis on science education in other countries,” Osadjan said, “and American high schools put a lot more emphasis on critical thinking, analysis of information rather than technical skills, so graduates of high schools outside of USA are often steered a little bit towards degrees in science and technology.”

Photo at top: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ main office in Chicago. April 1 is the date when USCIS begins accepting new H-1B visa quota based applications. (Yunfei Zhao / MEDILL)