Immigration Reform May Make Your Job Search Much Tougher

If you’re a recent college graduate, a doctoral candidate, or a highly-skilled professional who has been in the job market the past few years, you know it’s rough out there. But if the immigration overhaul proposed in the Senate this morning becomes law, it’s likely to get a lot rougher.

The key provision on this starts around page 299 of the 844-page bill and continues for another 300 pages or so. (Easy to find, I know.) Here’s the takeaway: Under the bill, the number of visas that can be distributed to high-skilled foreigners will increase dramatically. If it passes, there will be four to five times as many high-skilled visas as are available now, says Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the nonpartisan think tank, the Migration Policy Institute.

The current system for distributing these visas is the highly inefficient H1-B lottery, the annual first-come, first-served lottery of 65,000 slots for high-skilled visas that Silicon Valley companies scramble for each April. (Another 20,000 are set aside for graduate students.) The visas are temporary but coveted because they allow visa holders to apply for a green card.

Companies have long argued that the H1-B caps don’t allow them to recruit as many qualified workers as they need, which was evident in the 2013 lottery, when the caps were reached in just five days. Sixty percent of those who applied, or 39,000 people, didn’t get a slot, says Neil Ruiz, an immigration expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. The bill’s sponsors also argue that the reforms will entice talented college graduates to remain and work in America, to the nation’s benefit.

That cap is now being lifted to 110,000, which means it will almost match the current demand. But the number of high-skilled foreigners the U.S. lets in will actually be much greater than 110,000 and will not be limited to scientists and engineers. The Senate’s bill also lifts the caps entirely on another category of high-skilled immigrants, known as “aliens of extraordinary ability.” (Yes, that’s really the term.) If an immigrant has an MD, a PhD in math, science, or engineering, or can prove to the government that she has extraordinary abilities—a successful dancer or editor of a niche magazine, for example—then one can bypass the entire H1-B system. An employer can sponsor the immigrant immediately for a green card.

Under the bill, even undergrads can get green cards directly out of college without having to apply for the H1-B. Ruiz estimates that about 343,000 foreign students currently studying in the U.S. will be eligible to apply for this fast track to citizenship. That’s a huge number, and it includes people who currently don’t even try to apply for an H1-B. Right now, many foreign students in the U.S. decide to go back to their own countries after graduating because the visa restrictions make it hard to land a job. If a British political science major graduating from a U.S. liberal arts college, for example, wants to work at a nonprofit organization in New York City, she’s unlikely to apply for an H1-B because she has almost no chance of getting one. Other types of visas are even harder to obtain.

If the bill passes, there will be plenty more slots to go around. The bar to prove that one qualifies for those slots will also become more stringent. Even so, the number of available visas is expected to skyrocket. That will send ripples through the entire job market.

Which is great, if you’re a U.S. business seeking to recruit the best talent. It’s also great if you’re a university, because now you’ll have an easier time getting top graduates to stay on as researchers. But if you’re headed into the job market in the next couple years, the changes are rather frightening. No matter how you slice it, you’re likely to face more competition.

Dwoskin is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in Washington.