The U.S. Really Doesn't Have Many Temporary Foreign Workers

Matt Berman

Visas for temporary foreign workers—including H-1B visas for highly skilled workers and visas for less-skilled workers—are a major part of the Senate's wrangling attempt at immigration reform. According to a new analysis out by the Congressional Budget Office, if immigration reform passes in its current form, it would increase the U.S. population of temporary foreign workers and their families by 1.6 million over the next decade. That may seem like a lot of people, but consider this: Right now, the United States has a much lower ratio of temporary foreign workers than does much of the world.

The Brookings Institution illustrated this point in a chart:


As the Brookings report points out, the U.S. doesn't have the kind of guest-worker programs to get workers into labor-intensive jobs that some other countries have. This places the U.S. in the middle of the pack for the ratio of its temporary foreign workers to permanent immigrants among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

The immigration bill in the Senate will change this in several ways. The measure would adjust all of the current temporary foreign-worker programs and add a new W visa program for low-skilled workers. The changes to H-1B visas for highly skilled workers alone show what could be coming: The bill would increase the annual cap on on the visas from 65,000 to 115,000 in the first year, and from there the cap could move up to a maximum of 180,000 annually, based on employer demand.