The H-1B visa is a highly coveted, temporary visa awarded to just 65,000 foreign workers in specialized fields per year. But the world's best and brightest face a new and dangerous(ly sexy) threat: fashion models.
Bloomberg has an interesting take. Their story begins:
Ravi Shanker makes weekly pilgrimages to Chilkur Balaji temple outside Hyderabad, India, asking for a little help on a visa from an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.
Shanker, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, a top engineering school, is praying for an H-1B visa to enter the U.S. He needs all the divine intervention he can get, because he’s not just vying with other software engineers for the high-skill work permits. His other rivals? Fashion models.
Oh noooooooooooo! Not models!
Fashion models are almost twice as likely to get their visas as computer programmers, by one rough measure. There were 478 initial applications made for fashion models in 2010, according to U.S. Labor Department data compiled by Bloomberg. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved 250 visas for models. More than 325,000 H-1B petitions were filed for computer-related occupations; about 90,800 visas were distributed to foreign information-technology workers, including immigrants whose visas were being renewed or changed.
Wait. So out of over 91,000 H-1B visas that were approved or renewed in 2010, 250 were given to models. Models are getting just less than 0.3% of all H-1B visas. Poor Ravi Shanker's chances of missing out on a visa to a fashion model are minuscule.
In fact, if you look at the history of the H-1B visa, the number of visas given to models has fallen. From 2000 to 2005, models got between 614 and 790 H-1Bs each year. That number began to dwindle as more of the visas started being eaten up by the tech sector.
Bloomberg's thesis needs to be inverted: tech workers aren't being beaten out by models for H-1Bs. Models — and other specialized workers in non-tech-related fields — are being overwhelmingly beaten out by tech workers.
The reason that models are even eligible for the H-1B visa is a historical accident. In 1990, Congress revised immigration laws to create visa classes for performers, athletes, and other specialized workers. But it was only after the revision was passed that Congress realized they had forgotten to include any mention of models — so foreign models were suddenly ineligible for any kind of visa to work in the U.S. In 1991, Congress passed an amendment that tacked models on to the H-1B, a visa intended for temporary foreign workers in "specialty occupations."
Most people who are granted H-1B visas have Bachelor's or even Master's degrees, because those qualifications are requirements in fields like engineering, medicine, and tech. More than half of the models who were granted H-1Bs in 2010, however, had no high school diplomas, because those qualifications are not a requirement in their field. (And also because most models start working very young.) Lacking a degree doesn't mean they're not performing specialized labor. Models who apply for the H-1B are required to submit evidence of their work history — applicants need a U.S. agency as a sponsor, at least 10 letters of recommendation from qualified industry professionals, and 40-50 published tear sheets (which would usually represent several years of full-time employment in the industry). To be eligible for the visa, models have to demonstrate "distinguished merit and ability." Just because you're in fashion doesn't mean getting an H-1B is a cakewalk.
It's probably true that models have more in common with performers and musicians than they do with programmers, but so far every attempt to move models into a different visa category has been met with political opposition. Then-Congressman Anthony Weiner tried to amend the law in 2008, but was met with derisive New York Post headlines. Taking models out of the H-1B category — or writing alarming stories about how they're "taking" visas that "should" go to tech workers like our dear friend Ravi — isn't a feasible solution unless and until Congress finds the political will to give models a new visa or visa category.
The real story here isn't that models are the odd ones out in the H-1B. The real story is that the tech sector is increasingly dominating a visa category that was intended for a much broader range of specialized workers.