High-Skilled Immigration, Economic Growth, and One Immigrant's Experience

A Q&A with Jack Salmon

Earlier today, Daniel Griswold and Jack Salmon released a new policy brief outlining some of the economic benefits of temporary, high-skilled foreign workers (typically including H-1B and F-1 visas). But as with any policy discussion, it’s easy to lose sight of the human impact.

Luckily, Salmon is, himself, an H-1B visa recipient, and was willing to sit down to answer a few questions about the process with insight born from his perspective as both researcher and immigrant.

Let’s start off with some basics. When did you start the process of obtaining an H-1B visa, and how long did it take from start to finish?

After a discussion with my supervisor and HR Director early in the year of 2017, we started the process of building my case around April. My case was initially filed in June and received by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in July. At the time, the option for premium processing (hearing a response within 15 days) had been suspended. Luckily the suspension was lifted in August and we received an answer from USCIS. The initial response was a Request For Evidence (RFE) which meant that our lawyer had to work with our HR team to provide greater evidence of my proposed role. Finally, on the weekend following Thanksgiving, my petition was approved. After attending an interview at the US consulate in London and getting my passport stamped, the process was complete after a painstaking six months.

Was any part of the application process surprising or unexpected?

Yes. When we unexpectedly received an RFE from USCIS, we were a little taken aback. However, we later learnt that an increasing number of H-1B filers at the time were receiving RFE’s due to increased stringency—almost 70 percent by the end of 2017. What was most striking about this RFE was the specific evidence that USCIS was asking about. I was filing as a worker with a Master’s Degree for a research position at an academic research institute, however, USCIS was requesting evidence that the job I was applying to fill required at least a Bachelor’s Degree.

The H-1B visa has been an important part of the US labor market for nearly 30 years now, and generally enjoys broad, bipartisan support in the United States. Before you actually began the formal visa application process, did you know what an H-1B visa was or have any preconceptions about what it and the process were like?

Before going through the formal process myself, I was aware of the H-1B visa and the importance of the temporary skilled worker visa. What I didn’t know was how complicated and increasingly stringent the process was for acquiring such a visa.

As your colleague, it’s easy for me to see the kind of value you bring to the Mercatus Center on a daily basis, but thinking more generally, why should Americans who may not work directly with or know H-1B and F-1 visa recipients care about how many such visas we issue?

For the most part, H-1B workers are in key positions within a business or firm, so their skills tend to be essential for company growth. This is important to the average American because growth at the firm level actually creates more jobs for domestic workers. As our study demonstrates, for every H-1B worker a tech company employs, five new domestic jobs are created (7.5 new jobs for smaller firms). Not to mention the wage payoff for domestic workers that comes from high skilled immigrants—a growth in the wages of native workers of seven to eight percent for every one percent increase in foreign STEM workers. That constitutes a raise of almost $5,000 for the average American worker with a Bachelor’s Degree.

If you hadn’t been able to complete the H-1B application process for some reason, what would have been your next option? Is there another visa option available, or would you have stayed in the United Kingdom? What would it have taken for you to come work with us if you hadn’t received the visa that you did?

Unfortunately, there are not many viable visa options for skilled workers. There are H-2B visas which are mostly used for landscaping, grounds keeping, and seasonal construction workers. There are L-1 visas for those who work for global companies and are looking to transfer, O visas are for athletes, actors and those with exceptional talent, as well as visas for religious workers and interns/trainees. Given the limited options, I would most likely have stayed in the UK or taken my talents to another country that places great value in international workers.

You and Griswold write that H-1B application approvals were actually way down in 2017. How sharp was that drop, and do we know why so many fewer applications were approved?

Historically, H-1B approval rates have fluctuated between 75 percent and 87 percent. Starting in 2017 this traditional pattern has been shattered. In 2017, the rate of approval fell to just 59 percent. In Aril 2017, the President signed the Buy American and Hire American Executive Order which has led to a tighter H-1B visa adjudication process by USCIS. The result has been a dramatic increase in both denials and RFE’s.

Thinking about the future, how do you hope the process is different 10 or 20 years from now for the next generation of applicants?

This week as many as 200,000 high-skilled workers will apply for the H-1B. Unfortunately, only around 40 percent of those talented workers will get approval. I hope that US policymakers, the business community, and the public at large will realize that by denying these talented workers the opportunity to contribute to the US economy and create value for domestic workers, the United States is losing in the global competition for international talent and entrepreneurial innovation. 

You can read the full policy brief on Mercatus.org