People immigrating to the US for work have two visa options: work-related temporary visas that are time-bound, and employment-based immigrant visas (typically called “green cards,” which can also be issued for non-work related reasons) that offer permanent residence in the United States.
The government permits immigration for multiple reasons: to reunite families, provide safety for refugees, and expand labor pools for seasonal work, among others. In 2022, most authorized immigrants — 42% — were admitted on work-related visas. Qualifying for either a temporary work visa or a green card depends on a range of factors, including offers of employment and measures of personal and professional achievement.
How does the US admit immigrant workers?
Visas are permits that citizens of foreign countries must obtain before entering the United States. While Congress holds the power to regulate immigration, the actual application process is managed by two different bodies, depending on the type of visa: the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security, deals with green cards, and the Department of State manages temporary visas.
Green cards are held by Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs). LPRs are not US citizens, but are legally allowed to live permanently in the US and can eventually apply for citizenship. Green cards are granted for a number of reasons, with employment making up the biggest chunk.
Temporary visas are issued for situations such as travel, study, and seasonal or temporary work assignments. The two most common work-related temporary visas are H-1B visas for workers in “specialty occupations”, which are valid for three years, with the option to extend for a maximum of six years, and H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers, which are valid for one year, with the option to extend in one-year increments for up to three years. Some temporary visa holders can apply for adjustments of status to get green cards and become lawful permanent residents.
Most immigrants who come to the US for work come on temporary visas: in 2022, 1,010,900 work visas were granted, compared with 48,911 employment-based green cards.
Applicants must meet a variety of requirements depending on the type of work they’re pursuing. Some visa sub-categories require employers or petitioners to show that there aren’t enough US-based workers who have the ability or desire to do the work.
Other temporary workers whose jobs require specialized knowledge must have a bachelor's degree in their field. If they intend to work in positions requiring licenses, such as health care, they need to have the licenses or certifications that would allow them to work immediately after entering the US.
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How does the US evaluate employment-based green cards?
Green cards are issued based on five levels of “preference” as defined by the USCIS.
Three are work-related: The first preference is for those with “extraordinary ability,” such as Pulitzer Prize winners and Olympians, who have attained national or international recognition. The second is for people with advanced degrees or exceptional ability or expertise in the sciences, arts, or business. And the third is for all other workers seeking full-time, permanent work, all of whom must provide proof of a job offer. This group accounted for the majority of employer-based green cards, with 30,104 granted in 2022, 62% of the total.
The fourth preference is for those with specifically defined characteristics, such as:
Certain media workers
Children who need protection
People who have provided information about criminal or terrorist organizations
The fifth and final preference is for investors (and their families) who would make a commercial investment in the US and create or preserve at least 10 permanent full-time jobs.
How have total worker visa rates changed over time?
The number of work visas issued, both temporary work visas and green cards, has increased over time: between 2013 and 2022, the number of immigrants admitted into the US for work increased 60%, from 662,129 to 1,059,811. On average, employment-based green cards made up 3.1% of the work visas issued during that period. Temporary work visas accounted for the majority — 96.9%, on average.
Over the last 25 years, there were two notable dips in the number of temporary work visas (and green cards) granted: during the Great Recession in 2008–2009 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. In 2020, only 603,411 temporary work visas were granted. In 2022, numbers were back up to 1,010,900, surpassing 2019’s previous high of 897,167.
There are two main types of temporary work visas: H-2A and H-1B. Most temporary work visas in 2022 were H-2A visas for temporary agricultural workers — 298,336, or 29.5% of all temporary visas. This category has also grown the most over the last 25 years, increasing by 1,763.3% over 1997’s 16,011 visas.
Non-agricultural workers coming into the US to work in specialty occupations receive H-1B visas. In 2022, there were 206,002 specialty occupation workers, representing 20.4% of all temporary visas granted that year, and 124,644 temporary non-agricultural workers hired for seasonal or peak-business periods, representing 12.3%.
What countries do workers on H-1B or H-2A visas come from?
In 2022, the majority (92.5%) of temporary agricultural workers on H-2A visas came from Mexico, accounting for 275,981 workers. Other workers came from South Africa (9,554, 3.2% of the total), Jamaica (4,826, 1.6% of the total), Guatemala (2,978, 1.0% of the total), and Peru (975, 0.3% of the total).
For H-1B visas, workers from India (166,271) made up 80.7% of recipients2022, followed by China (6,070, 2.9% of the total), the Philippines (2,151, 1.0% of the total), South Korea (2,140, 1.0% of the total), and Mexico (2,069, 1.0% of the total).