By Lisa Marie Chirico
Immigration reform is grabbing its share of headlines lately. The Senate voted 84-15 to begin consideration of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” compromise legislation this week. Tim Pawlenty, president and CEO of The Financial Services Roundtable and former governor of Minnesota, recently commented, “If you think of this (immigration reform) as a stew instead of a roast…there’s enough elements for compromise here.”
Mr. Pawlenty makes an astute point. It seems that nearly everyone is weighing in on immigration reform. From Mark Zuckerburg, who recently launched the organization Fwd.us to advocate for the legislation, to environmental organizations such as Greenpeace who are fighting the “immigration is bad for the environment” myth. Aside from border security and amnesty, the annual H-1B visa cap is another pressing element of this issue, especially for foreign-born fashion models and computer programmers.
To help illustrate the current plight of these two professions, let’s pretend for a moment that the competition for H-1B visas is the World Series, and it’s the programmers versus the models. Can you guess who could brag about consecutive sweeps? Believe it or not, it would be the models. In the heated competition for H-1B visas, fashion models who desire to work in the United States are handily taking the lead with a 51 percent success rate, in contrast to computer programmers, who have only a 28 percent success rate for acquiring H-1B visas. Is beauty prevailing over brains when it comes to who is chosen to work in the U.S.?
According to data collected by Bloomberg reporters, in 2010, the Labor Department detailed that they granted 250 visas for fashion models out of approximately 478 applications which they received for that trade. For occupations described as “computer-related,” 325,000 applications were received, and just 90,800 of them were approved for a visa. Overall, there are fewer fashion models (modeling, incidentally, being the only profession that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree to apply for a H-1B visa) that apply for visas than foreign workers in the high-tech category, yet they are far more likely to have their visa applications approved.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s website says the H-1B program “applies to employers seeking to hire nonimmigrant aliens as workers in specialty occupations or as fashion models of distinguished merit and ability.” Currently, the government sets an annual limit of 65,000 for the H-1B visa. In 2012, the government closed applications for H-1B petitions after only 72 days. This year, the cap was reached in just five days. The current Senate immigration bill plans to increase this cap to at least 110,000, and depending on employer demand, raise it to 180,000. Also, employers will pay new fees if they use H-1B visa holders for 30 percent or more of their workforce.
Has the H-1B visa cap affected the influx of much-needed STEM workers to the U.S.? Indeed, it has. Computer industry entrepreneurs, along with Microsoft’s Bill Gates, have actively lobbied Congress over the years to expand the high-tech visa category in order to slow down the rate that their companies lose skilled workers to other nations. In spite of a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute that concluded there is “more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations in the U.S.,” other experts disagree. “Publicly available government data and common sense reject the notion that there are ‘too many’ high-tech workers in the United States,” said economic advisor Ian Hathaway.
Behind the seemingly unexplained phenomena of fashion models capturing more visas than computer programmers is a simple explanation: a slipup. Twenty years ago, when Congress set about creating an individual type of visa for people who worked in less conventional occupations, fashion models were inadvertently left out. Realizing their error, lawmakers made a “quick fix” and added models to the category comprised of high-tech workers and other specialty occupations. Then, in 2007, former congressman Anthony D. Weiner (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill in an attempt to “even the score” and fix this oversight. He proposed that 1000 new visa slots be created for fashion models, and that they be moved into the category shared by athletes and entertainers. Weiner’s bill stalled in the Senate during that session, and the ensuing follow up has fallen flat.
That same year, the Judiciary Committee said that losing models “can have a negative effect on the U.S. economy.” It’s not hard to see why. According to the Brookings Institution, in New York City, one in 20 workers is tied to the fashion industry, which generates nearly $10 billion in wages. Fashion Week, which is held semi-annually in Manhattan, generated an economic impact of $865 million in 2012.
When it comes to salaries, fashion models have a wide range in pay. The foreign-born supermodel Gisele Bündchen, who ranked eighth in Forbes 2012 “Entertainment’s Highest-Paid Women” list, earned $45 million. For other foreign-born models, the pay is quite a bit less, but still good – they earn an average salary of $161,000. The salary is much lower for American fashion models. According to one runway model, she earns from $800 to $1,000 per show with international mass brands. Boston University sociologist, author, and former model Ashley Mears conveyed that the average U.S model earned $27,330 in 2009.
So, how do “techies” compare on the salary scale with fashion models? Looking at the bigger picture, H-1B visa holders are paid more than U.S. native-born workers with a bachelor’s degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2011, the median salary for Web developers was $77,990. In spite of reports of downsizing, such as IBM’s recent announcement that they laid off 1,300 U.S. employees as part of their global restructuring plan, the strong demand for workers with specialized technical skills is driving up salaries. One Web developer described his job offer this way: “…these were the terms: $120,000 in salary, a $10,000 signing bonus, stock options…there has never been a better time to do what I do.”
Surely, both high-skilled and low-skilled workers are needed to assist in the resurgence of the American economy. We are a nation of immigrants. Will our new immigration legislation accurately and fairly reflect that?