The U.S. was flooded with nearly 781,000 H-1B visa registrations this year -- a more than 60% increase from the prior year. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services suspects H-1B visa fraud.
In a strongly worded statement Friday, USCIS said that "some may have tried to gain an unfair advantage by working together to submit multiple registrations on behalf of the same beneficiary."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
The agency has undertaken an H-1B visa fraud investigation and is "initiating law enforcement referrals for criminal prosecution," according to the statement.
Fraud was a concern when the government unveiled a new H-1B lottery registration system in 2019, which introduced a $10 fee per applicant. The fear was that the lower-cost registration system might tempt some to game the visa system.
Before the registration system, businesses seeking to sponsor an H-1B visa applicant filed a completed petition, which costs $2,000 to $5,000 or more due to legal and associated fees. The petitions then entered a lottery for one of the 85,000 H-1B visas issued annually.
Now, companies can submit a candidate for a visa via the electronic registration system, which automatically enters the applicant into the lottery held at the end of March. Those selected have 90 days to submit a full petition.
While the new registration system eased the H-1B process, some immigration attorneys expressed concern that its low upfront costs and ease of use would prompt abuse.
Some immigration experts believe certain companies are filing H-1B registrations but aren't planning to act as the employer, said Shev Dalal-Dheini, director of government relations for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She said they might be exploiting desperate people trying to find work in the U.S. and promising to connect them with a contractor job.
Registration system is a good idea
The registration system "is a good idea -- it's streamlined, it's much more efficient, and it saves resources," Dalal-Dheini said. "But what it's done is it's exposed a lot of the flaws in the system."
That includes not having enough H-1B visas to meet demand and the potential for abuse, she said.
An applicant can have multiple registrations, if they have a genuine job offer from two or more companies. Each company can submit a registration, Dalal-Dheini said.
The uptick in registrations also raises questions about why there is such a high demand when the tech industry is laying off workers. The vast majority of H-1B visa holders work in the computer industry.
Ron Hira, an associate professor of political science at Howard University, said this issue is just more evidence that the visa program subverts Congress' intent that it be used to fill labor shortages. Instead, it's being used to provide a cheap and indentured workforce to employers, he said.
Hira questions why the U.S. uses a random system rather than one that's merit-based to select people for an H-1B visa. "Imagine a top university selecting its incoming class through a random lottery rather than rational criteria that meet the university's mission," he said.
The biggest winners of the random lottery "are firms that built business models based on abusing the program -- major outsourcing firms that ship jobs overseas," as well as tech companies that exploit the workers, Hira said.
Hira believes that the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees USCIS, should replace the lottery with a merit-based selection process and "close the outsourcing loophole so employers can no longer replace or harm U.S. workers."
Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.