Tag Archives: Immigration statistics

L-1 Visas Issued in India Declined by 28 Percent in 2011

Given the significant and increasing ties between the US and Indian economies, it is not surprising that companies with offices in India seek to transfer personnel into the United States. However, to do so is not a simple matter, especially over the past year.

Recently, I obtained data from the State Department that show L-1 visas (used for intracompany transfers) issued by U.S. posts in India declined by 28 percent between 2010 and 2011. Yet during the same time period, L-1 visas issued at U.S. diplomatic posts in the rest of the world increased by 15 percent. (See the report here.)

L1 visas are used by companies to transfer from overseas to the United States executives, managers and professionals with “specialized knowledge.” It is believed one of the reasons for the increase in denials centers around consular officers in India adopting a new, stricter interpretation of “specialized knowledge.” Immigration law defines “specialized knowledge” as “special knowledge of the company product and its application in international markets” or “an advanced level of knowledge of processes and procedures of the company.” A company must have employed the L-1 applicant for one year or more continuously within the past 3 years.

Request for Information

On October 25, 2011, the U.S. embassy in New Delhi issued a press release with the headline, “US Mission to India Reports 24% Year-on-Year Increase in H-1B Visas Issued.” The press release stated, “The U.S. Mission to India saw H-1B (specialized skills work visa) issuances in India increase 24% between the U.S. Government’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 and FY 2010 . . . This 24% increase is tied to the highest ever H-1B application and issuance rates in the history of the US Mission to India, and illustrates the booming nature of US-India business relations.”

Something appeared to be missing from the press release – information on whether L1 visa issuance increased or decreased in 2011. Curiously, the press release contained only a single reference to L-1 visas, stating: “India also remains the leader in issuances of L1 (intracompany transfer) visas, issuing more than 25,000 L-1s in FY 2011 – or 37% of issuances worldwide.”

Yet without the exact figure on 2011 or the data on 2010, there would be no way of knowing what happened to L1 visas over the past year. Many companies had been reporting increased denials but hard data from the US Department of State remained elusive.

The Data on L-1 Visas

In response to a request for data, the State Department sent me the information on L1 visas issued at U.S. posts in India in 2010 and 2011, as well as L1 visas issued at other posts around the world. The results appear in Tables 1 and 2.

L1 visa data table

 Why Is India Different?

The data appear to be proof that something strange is going on in the L1 visa issuing process in India, which the State Department in the past has denied. The release of the data is likely to spur additional inquiries into why L1 visa issuance is declining in India, while in the rest of the world it is rising. Since every U.S. diplomatic post operates under the same set of laws there is so far no easy answer to the question:

Why are U.S. consular officers in India apparently denying a higher proportion of the L-1 visa applications that come to them than consular officers in other countries?

Unused Employment Visas Contributed to Green Card Backlog

The green card backlog is significant for employment-based immigrants, particularly for professionals born in India. It’s possible the overall employment-based backlog is close to half a million people. Absent reform of the per country limits and an increase in the annual quotas it will take years – many years – to clear this backlog.

Few people realize there is a surprising cause for at least some of the backlog – unused employment visas. Since the 1990 Act, the annual quota for employment-based green cards has been 140,000. That includes both the principals and dependent family members.

However, even though the annual quota has been 140,000, that does not mean 140,000 green cards were awarded each year. Due to administrative issues within the federal government, in several years the quota was underutilized. This is detailed in the 2010 Annual Report of the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman.

As Table 1 illustrates between FY 1992 and FY 2006, more than 506,000 employment-based immigrant visas went unused. The data were provided to the Ombudsman by the U.S. Department of State. In 1995, for example, there were 58,694 employment-based visas that went unused. In 1997, the number that went unused was 40,170. In 1999, the number reached 98,491. As recently as 2003, 88,482 unused visas authorized by Congress were not used due to administrative problems within the federal government.

As the table shows, of the 506,410 employment visas that went unused since the 1990 Act, only 180,039 have been recaptured via special legislation. It is likely most members of Congress do not realize this many green cards authorized by Congress have gone unused. It would take special legislation for the visas to be reauthorized. If Congress were to reauthorize the use of the remaining 300,000-plus unused visas accumulated over the years it would significantly reduce the waiting times for employment-based immigrants and give such immigrants their chance at the American Dream.

Table 1

Unused Employment-Based Visas FY 1992-FY 2009

Fiscal Year

Unused Employment Preference Numbers
1992 21,207
1993 0
1994 29,430
1995 58,694
1996 21,173
1997 40,170
1998 53,571
1999 98,491
2000 31,098
2001 5,511
2002 0
2003 88,482
2004 47,305
2005 0
2006 10,288
2007 0
2008 0
2009 0
2010 0
Total 506,410(180,039 were recaptured by special legislation)

Source: U.S. Department of State; USCIS Ombudsman,

Annual Report to Congress, June 2010, p. 35.

Indians and Illegal Immigration

The vast majority of Indians come to the United States legally and stay here as legal visa holders. Many become permanent residents (green card holders) and then U.S. citizens. Indeed, in terms of income and education, it would be difficult to find a more successful immigrant group in U.S. history.

There are also Indians in the United States illegally. Such individuals remain a small part of the overall illegal immigrant population. Still, it is a segment worth exploring to help us better understand the immigration issue.

According to the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Indians made up only 1.9 percent of the illegal immigrant population in the United States as of January 2010. (Here is a link to that report.) There were approximately 200,000 Indians not in legal status in the U.S. out of a total illegal immigrant population of 10,790,000, according to a DHS report released in February 2011.

Table 1

Illegal Immigrant Population by Country (2010)

Country of Birth Estimated Unauthorized Immigrant Population (2010)
Mexico 6,640,000
El Salvador 620,000
Guatemala 520,000
Honduras 330,000
Philippines 280,000
India 200,000
Ecuador 180,000
Brazil 180,000
Korea 170,000
China 130,000
All Countries 10,790,000

                                               Source: Department of Homeland Security.

A Country by Country Look

One can see by examining Table 1 that Mexico dominates the overall illegal immigration population in the United States, representing over 60 percent, with 6.6 million. The next three countries have far smaller numbers of illegal immigrants in America: El Salvador with 620,000, Guatemala with 520,000 and Honduras with 330,000. These figures are as of January 2010, which means it’s possible newer data could yield slightly different results.

The Philippines has the fifth most illegal immigrants with 280,000, followed by India in 6th place with 200,000. Illegal immigrants from the Philippines and India largely come to the United States legally on visas and then overstay their visas. Unlike Mexicans, Indians cannot simply cross a border and find themselves in the United States. While it is possible some may have gone to Canada or Mexico and entered America illegally, it is more likely Indian illegal immigrants were once in some type of legal status and lost that status.

Changes in Indian Unauthorized Immigrant Population Over Time

In 1990, Indians made up an estimated 0.8 percent of the unauthorized immigrant population, with only 28,000 illegal immigrants, according to the then Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). It’s possible the 28,000 figure is a low estimate of the number of illegal immigrants from India in 1990. That is because an initial INS estimate of the number of Indians in the country illegally in the year 2000 was only 70,000. However, a few years later that figure was revised to 120,000.

Measuring the number of illegal immigrants in the United States is, by definition, not easy. It is even harder to make accurate estimates of smaller subsets of that population. Table 2 shows the overall number of Indians in the United States in the “unauthorized immigrant population” – the term used by the Department of Homeland Security – in 1990, 2000 and 2010. The numbers indicate the Indian population not in legal status has risen from 28,000 in 1990 to 200,000 in 2000.

Table 2

                                         Indian Unauthorized Immigrant Population: 1990 to 2010

Year Indian Percentage of Total
1990 28,000 0.8 percent
2000 120,000 1.4 percent
2010 200,000 1.9 percent

                   Source: Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Illegal Immigration Issue Remains Important

Whether someone is waiting for a green card or is an employer of immigrants, it would do well to remember that illegal immigration remains important in the American public’s mind. It drives the overall debate on immigration. In past years, disagreement on whether or not to provide legal status to the illegal immigrant population scuttled attempts to provide more green cards for high-skilled immigrants, including many Indians. The issue of illegal immigration is not going away.

What Do Employers Find on U.S. College Campuses?

Policy toward employment-based immigration is often mired in accusations that companies ignore U.S. citizens in the recruitment process. In reality, the issue is not companies hiring foreign nationals instead of Americans. It’s that when companies recruit on college campuses they find a high proportion of students in important disciplines are foreign nationals.

In 2007, U.S. universities awarded about half of master’s degrees and 73 percent of Ph.D.s in electrical engineering to foreign nationals, according to the National Science Foundation. Patents produced by foreign nationals are indicators that international students completing their studies not only make up a large proportion of new potential entrants to the labor market but also end up producing important innovations.

As Tables 1 and 2 show a substantial percentage of fulltime graduate students at U.S. universities in important fields are foreign nationals on student visas. Such visas do not allow an individual to stay and work in the United States long-term. To work for years in the United States an international student generally would need an H-1B visa.

Table 1

Percentage of Foreign Nationals in U.S. Graduate School Programs

in Selected Fields (2006)

Field Percent of Fulltime Graduate Students with Foreign

Student VisasTotal Fulltime Graduate Students with Foreign Student VisasStatistics



Economics (except agricultural)



Computer Sciences












Mathematics/Applied Mathematics



Pharmaceutical Sciences







Source: National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. Tables 18 and 21 of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: Fall 2006.

                                                                                    Table 2

Percentage of Foreign Nationals in U.S. Engineering Programs (2006)

Field Percent Fulltime Graduate Students with Foreign Student Visas Fulltime Graduate Students with Foreign Student Visas
Petroleum Engineering



Electrical Engineering



Mining Engineering



Agricultural Engineering



Industrial Engineering



Mechanical Engineering



Chemical Engineering



Metall./Matl. Engineering



Engineering Science



Engineering (other)



Civil Engineering



Aerospace Engineering



Biomedical Engineering



Nuclear Engineering






Source: National Science Foundation/Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. Tables 18 and 21 of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: Fall 2006.

In computer sciences, statistics and economics, international students made up 58 to 60 percent of the fulltime graduate students on U.S. campuses in 2006. In mathematics (39 percent), chemistry (41 percent) and physics (46 percent) the proportion of international students in graduate programs is also significant. In graduate level engineering programs in the United States, 47,484 of the 87,818 fulltime students (54 percent) were in the U.S. on temporary student visas in 2006.

When an employer recruits at a U.S. college and finds an outstanding international student a company can file for him or her to be on OPT (Optional Practical Training) for 12 months, with the possibility of an extension for an additional 17 months. At some point in that process, the individual could be hired on an H-1B visa, if one is available. If the individual was educated outside the country or OPT is not appropriate or the best option for that person, the employer would generally attempt to hire them directly in H-1B status.

Depending on their size, U.S. employers hire either all U.S. workers or some combination of Americans and foreign nationals. When companies recruit on campuses, they find a high percentage of foreign nationals in key fields. To ignore all these candidates because they were not born in America would concede many talented individuals to competitors. It would be difficult for companies to remain successful with such a policy.

A Brief History of Indian Immigration to the United States

So much attention is paid to current policy controversies that it is easy to lose sight of history. The history of Indian immigration to the United States is, to put it simply, recent history. I’ve put together data that show the stunning change in Indian immigration to America after the 1965 act removed the national origins quotas U.S. law. The data show that more Indians immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s than had immigrated in the prior 140 years.

Immigration from 1820 to 1959

The history of Indian immigration to the United States can be divided into two periods. The first period is the time prior to the 1965 Act. The second, after the change in U.S. law that opened the door to immigrants from India and other countries that had been mostly barred as countries of origin for U.S. immigration.

Table 1 illustrates that few people from India came to the United States in the 19th century or the first half of the 20th century. For much of that period, arduous and expensive travel likely acted as a limiting factor. Between 1820 and 1959, only 13,363 Indians immigrated to America, compared to over 69,000 in 2010 alone.

Prior to 1921, immigration to the United States was essentially open, with some literacy and health requirements introduced in the early 1900s. However, the 1921 and 1924 immigration acts sought to exclude immigration from eastern European, Asian, and African countries. Anti-Semitism in the period made Jewish immigration and, to an extent, immigration from Italy, the primary targets for exclusion, more than the relatively small amount of immigration from either Asia or Africa.

Table 1

Indian Immigration to the United States: 1820-1959

Year Immigrants from India
1820 to 1829 9
1830 to 1839 38
1840 to 1849 33
1850 to 1859 42
1860 to 1869 50
1870 to 1879 166
1880 to 1889 247
1890 to 1899 102
1900 to 1909 3,026
1910 to 1919 3,478
1920 to 1929 2,076
1930 to 1939 554
1940 to 1949 1,692
1950 to 1959 1,850
Total 13,363

Source: Table 2, 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security. Note: Country designation is by country of last residence.

The 1965 Act Changed Everything for Indian Immigration

Under the 1924 Act, which requires a separate, more extensive discussion, immigration from the “Asia-Pacific triangle” was limited to an overall ceiling of 2,000. As a result, extensive immigration from India was not possible. It should be noted that Congress legislated various exemptions from the quotas that enabled individuals to immigrate outside of the quotas.

The 1965 Act made several changes to U.S. immigration law but the most important was to eliminate the national origins quotas. Table 2 shows the dramatic change produced in Indian immigration as a result of the 1965 Act. One can see how Indian immigration has climbed post-1965. From 1960 to 1969, 18,638 Indians immigrated to the United States, in the 1970s, 147,997 immigrated. Indian immigration totals increased as well in the next three decades.

Table 2

Indian Immigration to the United States: 1960-2009

Year Immigrants from India
1960 to 1969 18,638
1970 to 1979 147,997
1980 to 1989 231,649
1990 to 1999 352,528
2000 to 2009 590,464
Total 1,341,276

Source: Table 2, 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security. Note: Country designation is by country of last residence.

Table 3 shows that from 1950 to 1959, America received only 1,850 Indian immigrants. In contrast, from 2000 to 2009, 590,464 Indians immigrated to America. The 1965 Act, combined with the rise of Indian students and employment-based immigration to the United States, produced a dramatic change in the number of people coming from India to America.

Table 3

Indian Immigration to the United States: Pre- and Post-1965 Act

Year Immigrants from India
1950 to 1959 1,850
2000 to 2009 590,464

Source: Table 2, 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security. Note: Country designation is by country of last residence.