Dismal Datapoint of the Day: The H-1B Visa Lottery

The H-1B visa is one of those policies that everyone loves to hate. It gives skilled immigrants -- scientists, engineers, researchers, etc. -- the right to live and work in the U.S. for six years, so nativists hate it right off the bat. But in fields that attract too few American citizens, such as computer programming, it has become an essential part of the hiring process. But tech executives and globalization advocates loathe it because the cap is too low, and it's devilishly hard to get one. The U.S. gives out only 85,000 each year, and 20,000 of those are reserved for applicants with advanced degrees. The demand for these visas is so strong that generally all 85,000 are given out within the first couple days of filing, which begins April 1.

But not this year. Today U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services took the rather unprecedented step of announcing that, after a full week of accepting applications, it still hadn't reached the cap.

There are two ways to look at this. The half-glass-full explanation would be that this is just a supply issue. The U.S. job market is the worst it's been in 70 years, and unemployment is expected to hit 10 percent by the end of the year. There are simply fewer jobs for immigrants, skilled or not, to apply to, and thus less need for H-1B visas.

The glass-half-empty explanation would paint this as a demand issue. Perhaps the U.S. has finally made life so difficult for the aspiring immigrant, what with airport security and visa caps and legally-permissible xenophobia, that they've decided enough is enough. Besides, job opportunities have improved greatly in home countries like India and China. Why bother with the hassle of being an immigrant in America when you can make nearly as much in your birth country? Recent research by Vivek Wadhwa of Duke University supports this idea. America is becoming a less attractive destination for the highly-educated immigrant. That will damage our competitiveness in the long run.

I bet the half-glass-full reason explains about 80 percent of this year's slack demand for the visas. But if I were a congressman, I'd start thinking very seriously about why my country is no longer as attractive to the rest of the world.