Sophie Feng, 25, received an offer she could not turn down, one she believed will provide her with valuable career experience.
Feng works in landscape architecture at RDG Planning & Design in Des Moines. Born in Beijing, China, she is here on an H-1B visa.
"RDG is a really top architectural firm, and when I did the interview I thought people were really professional and the working environment is really good," Feng recalled. "Management is transparent, and they gave me an offer really quickly so I thought, this is maybe the reason I want to come to Des Moines, this is a really good firm.
"This is really good for my career development."
Feng is not alone.
Each year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can issue a maximum of 65,000 non-immigrant visas, known as H-1B visas. Those documents allow U.S companies to employ foreign individuals for up to six years.
Within the first week of the filing period that opened in April, Citizenship and Immigration Services reached its annual cap.
In fact, USCIS received 124,000 H-1B petitions, including petitions filed for the advanced degree exemption.
The purpose of an H-1B visa is to give employers the legal authorization to hire foreign professionals if a U.S. citizen or resident is not available. This category of visas applies to people who work in specialty occupations such as accountants, computer analysts, web designers, engineers and financial analysts, according to usimmigrationsupport.org.
Ninety percent of H-1B applications filed by employers are for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, according to the Brookings Institution.
For Cedar Rapids-based Rockwell Collins, the annual cap on H-1B visas, combined with a shortage of skilled individuals in STEM careers, means increasing competition to fill necessary positions. The problem is only expected to get worse in the future, an official said.
"One of the big issues that we have with the H-1B process today is that there is a cap on the number of H-1Bs at any given time that the government imposes," said Stephen Schulz, director of talent acquisition at Rockwell Collins. "Because there's such a shortage of IT and engineering talent in the country, companies are pulling this as a lever and a way to meet their talent needs."
Rockwell Collins competes against many other large companies across the nation for the desired talent, he added.
"Companies like Rockwell Collins are looking at different ways to meet the demands of our business out of necessity, and hiring foreign nationals with engineering skills is proven to be very effective for us over the years," he said. "This cap on the H-1B visas has made that more difficult, just because the limit really increases the competition for talent before their cap is met."
Congress created the H-1B visa program so an employer could hire a foreign guest-worker "when a qualified American worker could not be found," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., explained back in a 2009 press release.
Durbin agreed to support the Senate's bipartisan immigration bill only after protection was added for American workers, said Max Gleischman, his communications director, this past week. The Illinois senator contends there is "fraud and abuse" within the H-1B system, which he said takes away jobs from Americans.
Not enough skilled individuals
In an April 6 story, the Economist magazine noted that "Studies have found that skilled immigrant workers are more likely than their domestic counterparts to create patentable inventions or start new businesses."
Increasing the annual cap would be "a big win" for all employers, said Dave Gosch, senior public relations specialist for Rockwell Collins.
"Countries such as China and India, they're graduating engineers at a much higher rate," Gosch said. "So that alone means that that's where a lot of engineers are being produced, and so you can look toward those countries to meet your engineering needs and the H-1B visa program helps us meet that need."
But getting and keeping those professionals isn't easy.
"This year it was worse than usual because the H-1Bs ran out in the first five days," said Lori Chesser, a lawyer and chairwoman of the Davis Brown law firm's immigration department. "It always goes with the economy. When the economy's down, H-1B applications are down and numbers last longer ... . As the economy gets better, more H-1Bs are filed, and they run out."
When companies find the talent they're seeking, Chesser said, they then contact her to ask if there are H-1Bs left.
"We hear it all the time," she said.
Some businesses have decided the effort is worth it. Coralville-based Integrated DNA Technologies employs seven individuals with H-1B visas out of a total 750 employees globally.
"We're very careful to consider the position itself and if it would qualify," said Amy Lehn, Integrated DNA's vice president of global human resources. "We're pretty careful with what positions we would even consider that to begin with because we know what the qualifiers are, the time that it takes to go through the process is always a little bit challenging. But other than that, I wouldn't say that we have any issues generally speaking (with hiring foreigners through the H-1B process)."
The company typically hires individuals with H-1B visas for positions that are higher paid and require higher levels of expertise, said Damon Terrill, general counsel at the biotech company.
A need for reform?
"For us as a state, not to have a strategy to continue to try to attract top global talent, we are not putting ourselves in a strong position for the future," said Jay Byers, chief executive officer of the economic-development agency Greater Des Moines Partnership. "We are a nation, we're a state, we're a region of immigrants, but (had it not been) for immigration over the last decade, the state of Iowa would have lost population.
"Overall, to continue the overall growth of the state, it's very important that we have a legal immigration system that better reflects the economic realities."
Byers, too, is in favor of increasing the annual cap on H-1B visas."If there is that need and we're able to be that sort of beacon of hope for the world where top global talent from across the world wants to come to Iowa, why wouldn't we want them to come?" Byers said.