H-1B Visa Petition: A History of the Specialty Occupation Visa Category

Last Updated on November 29, 2023


H-1B visas are the most popular form of U.S. work authorization. How did that come to be? Read on!

Every year on the first business day of April, H-1B employers and their foreign national employees hope to have their petitions selected in the competitive annual H-1B visa lottery.

Each year, the competition gets tougher for the H-1B lottery. In FY 2024, U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) received over 780,000 cap-subject H-1B petitions. In FY 2023, USCIS received nearly 484,000 cap-subject H-1B petitions. While the number of H-1B petitions submitted tends to increase annually, only 85,000 are selected and approved in a random lottery.  Petitioners whose applications are selected may start work on October 1 of every year.

Although the H-1B process has remained fairly consistent in the past few years, the process has changed over the course of the visa’s history in response to the wax and wane of demand for skilled labor.

Let’s take a look at cap seasons past and learn how the visa’s availability differed throughout time.

1990: 65,000 Available Visas

The H-1 temporary worker visa program was established in the 1950s to grant foreign individuals with “distinguished merit and ability” an opportunity to find legal employment inside the United States. It was amended by the Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT), a measure that added the specialty occupation requirement – which means the job must require a bachelor’s degree or higher, or equivalent work experience, in a specialized field – and the visa’s dual intent status, which allows petitioners to seek legal permanent residency (a green card) while petitioning for and holding their temporary resident status. With recommendations from industry leaders and academics, the act also established the 65,000-visa cap.

1998: 115,000 Available Visas

In 1997, the H-1B cap was reached for the first time. This helped spark the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998, which was enacted in October 2008. It expanded the cap by 50,000 visas, boosting it to 115,000 for the next three years.

2001: 195,000 Available Visas

As technology and internet-related industries comprised an increasing part of the U.S. economy in the early 2000s, a greater need emerged for workers skilled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions. Employers had difficulty recruiting for these positions locally, yet found that foreign nationals from China and India could fill their talent gaps. Policymakers pushed for another expansion of the H-1B work program when the visa increase enacted by the American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act of 1998 expired.

The American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act passed in 2000, adding 80,000 petition slots to the quota and giving employers a greater opportunity to acquire skilled foreign talent. The act also added a cap exemption to H-1B beneficiaries working at an institution of higher education, a government research organization or a related nonprofit entity.

2004-2015: 65,000 Available Visas

In 2003, when the expansion of the visa program was set to expire, there was a shift in political support for the program. Due to a growing perception that the H-1B program took away jobs from U.S. workers, the Bush administration declined to renew the cap expansion and allowed it to revert to its original 65,000 limit. President George W. Bush also signed the L-1 Visa and H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004 into law, which required employers to pay 100 percent of the prevailing wage, a salary standard set by industry comparisons. This helped ensure companies weren’t seeking to save on wage expenses by hiring foreign workers at a low rate.

What’s Next for the H-1B Visa Program?

Throughout history, the H-1B program has undergone changes due to economic circumstances and political factors. While no radical changes have taken place to the H-1B program in several years, changes may be in store for the H-1B program in FY 2025, as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has issued a proposed rule to update the H-1B program.

Regardless of what’s happening with the H-1B program, Envoy is here to help you out with all your H-1B visa questions and needs.

Contact Us for Your H-1B Visa Needs