Though they're hardly an official economic indicator, demand for H-1B visas tends to bubble up in times of economic prosperity and flatten in times of decline. As I pointed out in a post from April, the number of H-1B visas rose and fell with the IT industry's fortunes during the rapid build-out of dot-com businesses in the late 1990s and collapse of many of them in the early part of this decade.
Thanks to the current recessionary environment, it looks like 2009 may be the first year since 1996 that fewer than 65,000 of the visas (the annual number allowed under the current cap) are issued, I noted in my post.
According to the San Jose Mercury News, just 46.700 H-1B visa applications had been submitted as of late October, the lowest number since 2003. (The IT industry was hurting then too, of course, thanks to the previously mentioned dot-com bust.) The quota for 20,000 additional H-1B visas reserved for foreign graduates of U.S. colleges with at least a master's degree was met, though the article indicates applications are still being accepted.
The article mentions several of the same factors I cited in my post, including restrictions that make it tough for financial companies receiving money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to hire H-1B workers, the cost and hassle of filing H-1B applications and growing unease over hiring H-1B workers when domestic unemployment rates are so high. Yet the economy seems to be the biggest issue. Les French, president of WashTech, a Seattle-based union for tech professionals that is critical of the visa program, tells the Mercury News that application levels will rise as the economy returns to health. He said:
Once the economy picks up, you'll see a pickup in the applications. I think it will be lock-step with the economy.
The article also quotes Samta Kapoor, who is finishing up a master's degree in engineering management at Duke University and has been told by prospective employers that they are not hiring international students this year. The economy is also affecting H-1B holders who had already found employment in the United States. According to The Wall Street Journal, some 16,000 to 20,000 Indian H-1B holders have returned home after losing their jobs.
H-1B holders who lose their jobs must quickly find another job, leave the country or convert to a B1/B2 tourist visa, which doesn't allow them to work, but gives them some time to get their affairs in order before moving back to their home country. For many H-1B holders, it can be tough readjusting to their native culture, and is even tougher if they have children who have never lived in India.
Some Indians are bitter about losing their jobs, while others are more pragmatic. Niraj Sharma, a New York City consultant who had a month to prepare for a return to India, told the Journal that H-1B holders "knew its limitations." He said:
But the work experience in the U.S. was tremendously valuable and it provides us with leverage in Asia to prosper. ... If the next opportunity is in the UK or Africa, we will go there. People have always moved to places of opportunity. While the U.S. will always be a beacon of opportunity, other countries have also started competing with it.