The COVID-19 pandemic may force more than 250,000 legal immigrants to leave the country by the end of June, according to a new analysis by the Niskanen Center, a think tank that advocates immigration reform. This could include more than 125,000 workers on the H-1B visa.
The Niskanen Center’s Jeremy Neufeld, who focuses on immigration policy, based that number on an analysis of “approved I-140 petitions and economic projections from the St. Louis Fed,” according to his research note.
“A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that as many as 125,000 legal immigrants already working in the United States may fall out of status and be forced to return home because of the coronavirus by the end of June,” he added. “If we included H-1B holders who may intend to become permanent residents, but who do not yet have approved immigrant petitions, the total number of would-be legal immigrants working here who may lose status and have to depart would likely more than double to over a quarter of a million.”
Neufeld acknowledges that he has no data on how many H-1B workers “have immigrant intent.” To arrive at his overall picture of COVID-19 departures, he also used three years of initial H-1B petition data, then made the same assumptions about H-1B unemployment rates as overall legal immigration.
There are additional caveats to that number, of course. “This very rough estimate makes the simplifying assumption that unemployment among H-1B workers would be the same as for the general population, and that H-1B workers would be unable to transfer to another H-1B eligible job within the 60 days necessary to retain status,” he added.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already slowed down U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This year’s H-1B visa processing, for example, has undergone significant delays. “Beginning with the first day of filing, April 1, 2020, we will not immediately enter data for FY 2021 cap-subject petitions due to the COVID-19 pandemic and required health and safety protocols,” read the agency’s note. “Data entry and notice generation will be delayed until at least May 1, 2020.”
In addition, the long-term rate of H-1B denials remains elevated. The National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) was kind enough to crunch the data going back several years:
Business-services and consulting firms have been hit the hardest by these denial rates. That’s heartening news to critics who feel that the H-1B visa is a tool that those companies use to onboard talent at artificially suppressed prices. Just before the COVID-19 crisis, there were signs that the rate of initial H-1B approvals (as well as approvals post-RFE) had crept up slightly; it remains to be seen whether the pandemic will change that rate—and if a number of H-1B holders will find themselves forced to leave within a quarter or two.
For more COVID-19 content, check out the COVID-19 Jobs Resource Center.