Updated on December 7, 2016
Of all the visa programs that allow foreigners to work legally within the United States, none seems to ignite more debate than H-1B. Meant to help companies recruit workers with hard-to-find skills, critics say the program allows employers to hire thousands of cheap IT workers to replace American workers. But proponents of the program say it’s necessary to draw the best talent from around the world. Both sides want the program to undergo some drastic changes.
Foreign students are more likely to have expertise in STEM fields than Americans, and many have been in the U.S. for years, studying at American universities. The easiest path for them after graduating is to get a job offer, which would require the employer to apply for one of coveted 85,000 H-1B visas issued each year through a lottery system. What gets lost in the controversy about the H-1B visa is the fact that immigrants working in STEM fields are increasingly responsible for American innovation. These immigrants are more likely to major in science and engineering than American college students, and they file twice as many U.S. patents.
But despite rhetoric suggesting that most immigrants are a source of cheap labor, these workers, all things considered, do not come cheap. In fact, new research shows that on average, they cost employers more than American workers in the long run. A study released last week by economists at the University of California, San Diego, and Dartmouth College shows that the average foreign worker in science and technology jobs starts out making only slightly less than American-born workers—about 94 cents on the dollar. But after working in the United States for five years, the average foreign STEM worker earns $1.04 for every dollar their American colleagues make.