US Immigration Law Updates – How will recent changes to the H-1B visa lottery application system affect applicants?

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The closest thing to a standard professional visa in the United States is the H-1B specialty occupation category. There are currently 85,000 H-1B visas available each fiscal year, with 20,000 of those reserved for candidates with US master’s degrees.

Since 2013, there have been more candidates for H-1B visas than there were available visas, so the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) conducted a computer-generated random selection lottery process on registrations received in a narrow filing window each Spring. Until 2020, employers had to file a complete H-1B petition packet including all supporting documents to enter the lottery. Realising that this was placing an outsized burden on employers who were paying legal fees for the full preparation of a case that may not be accepted for processing, USCIS shifted to a simple electronic registration system that year.

The electronic registration system initiated in 2020 requires employers to provide basic details about the candidates they wish to sponsor and pay a $10 registration fee per person. This low threshold has incentivised employers to submit registrations for many more candidates than they actually need and candidates to seek multiple employers to file registrations on their behalf, to increase chances of selection.

Last year the USCIS received over 780,000 registrations for the H-1B lottery. For candidates with a US master’s degree and one registration, this resulted in a less than 12% chance of being selected in the initial run. Candidates without a US master’s degree and with one registration had less than a 9% chance. The previous year, there were just over 480,000 registrations for the same number of visas, and 308,000 the year before.

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As H-1B visas are the best, if not the only, visa option for many candidates, this remarkable decrease in lottery odds has been problematic. Following a review of the system, the US Department of Homeland Security announced a revamp to the H-1B registration system so that each candidate will now have only one bite at the apple, with a final rule being issued in February 2024 that will change how the system works.

Specifically, in the revised registration process, employers will be required to provide additional details about candidates, including their passport or travel document numbers. The lottery system will only allow one chance at selection per candidate, so candidates who have more than one sponsoring employer will not have improved odds as a result. For those candidates whose registrations are selected, the USCIS will allow online filing of H-1B petitions.

This year, the electronic registration system will be open from 6 to 22 March 2024. Candidates whose registrations are selected will then be advised of the deadline for their employers to submit H-1B petitions for adjudication. Successful H-1B petitions will be approved for a start date from 1 October 2024.

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