The U.S. government spends $8o billion a year on information technology, but despite this money, its immigration data is in awful shape. Some data is on paper, or of poor quality and out of synch with government systems used to track wages and employment.
Those are some of the takeaways from a new report that conducted what amounts to a headcount of nonimmigrant visa workers in the U.S. In the course of this investigation, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) critiqued the information-gathering systems used by the government.
"It's just sort of scandalous how poorly we're keeping track of what's going on in the visa programs," said Daniel Costa, the EPI's director of immigration law and policy research, in an interview. The report found that the data was inadequate and recorded in an inconsistent manner across federal agencies.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is still collecting "key information on occupations and wages only on paper-based forms, making these data impossible to obtain and review even if a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request is made and granted," the report said.
The EPI discussed the data problems in a report that looks at the number of nonimmigrant workers in the U.S. across 24 visa categories. This includes H-1B, L-1 and F-1 visa holders working as part of the Optional Practical Training program.
It found that in fiscal year 2013, the year analyzed, there were 1.42 million people on nonimmigrant visas working in the U.S., representing about 1% of the total U.S. workforce.
Of that number, approximately 461,000 were on H-1B visas. This includes people who are working under the visa cap, the majority of whom are employed by the tech industry, and those workers exempt from the cap, which includes nonprofit entities such as universities. The H-1B visa is good for three years and can be renewed for an additional three years.
Some 139,000 people were working as part of the Optional Practical Training Program, which allows people to work on their F-1 student visa, a figure that includes those participating in the STEM extension, the EPI found.
The USCIS gathers some rich data about nonimmigrant visa workers, but because it uses paper forms, it's difficult to get at. For instance, the H-1B petition form does ask for gender but USCIS has never provided details on H-1B visa holders by gender.
The labor department uses one set of occupation codes, the Standard Occupational Classification, to track worker salaries and employment, but the immigration service uses its own job definitions, which are much broader. "It makes it really impossible to compare it with the jobs that U.S. workers are doing," said Costa.
EPI is recommending that Congress pass legislation requiring regular electronic publication of this data, including occupations and wages. The legislation should also require inter-agency cooperation to "standardize, digitize, and improve the quality of data on nonimmigrant visas," the report said.
U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), in recently introduced legislation seeking reform of the H-1B and L-1 programs, want the U.S. Department of Labor to produce "extensive statistical data about the H-1B and L-1 programs, including wage data, worker education levels, place of employment and gender."