WORKER VISASU.S. Temporary Foreign Worker Visa Programs

By Claire Klobucista and Diana Roy

Published 14 June 2023

Temporary foreign workers have long supported the U.S. economy, providing American industries, such as agriculture and technology, with a critical labor force, and the United States accepts hundreds of thousands of foreign workers each year. Persistent U.S. labor shortages, accusations of abuse, an influx of undocumented immigrants, and pushback from domestic labor groups have reenergized the debate over the scale of these programs.  President Biden has expanded the capacity of some programs, including by streamlining the application process, but more ambitious efforts have stalled in Congress.

Foreign workers have been an essential but contentious feature of the U.S. economic landscape for generations. Since the United States launched its first migrant labor program during World War I, Washington has struggled to balance the shifting needs of industry with the concerns of the domestic labor force. Meanwhile, the temporary worker debate has been complicated by increasing levels of undocumented immigration and a growing political divide.

President Donald Trump promised to reform temporary foreign worker programs, also known as guest worker programs, in line with his “Buy American and Hire American” agenda; although his proposals to overhaul the country’s immigration system stalled in Congress, his administration managed to halt most foreign worker visa programs during the COVID-19 pandemic. President Joe Biden has sought to reverse his predecessor’s approach by expanding the legal opportunities for temporary migration, but reform efforts have also faced resistance from some policymakers.

What Are the Largest Foreign Worker Visa Programs?
The number of visas issued as part of U.S. temporary foreign worker programs, classified as nonimmigrant visas, has risen sharply after the first years of the pandemic slowed the movement of international migrants: more than 984,000 such visas were granted in 2022 [PDF], up from some 846,000 in 2019. The H1B, H2A, H2B, and H4 visas, the largest of these programs, have been the subject of some of the most heated debate.

In 2022, the United States issued more than 766,000 visas for those programs, far more than the 616,000 issued in 2019. However, the total number of workers participating in these programs at any one time is unknown [PDF] because the various federal data systems that process visas are not linked. This total number includes H1B workers who have received visa extensions while awaiting permanent residency status, a process that can take more than a decade. There are almost a dozen other temporary foreign worker visas that fall under the L, O, P, and Q categories. They cover a wide range of additional employment sectors, including for those who have extraordinary abilities in the arts, sciences, athletics, business, or education.

How Did the Temporary Worker Programs Start?
The earliest U.S. temporary worker programs, such as the Bracero Program, were established amid severe labor shortages during World War I and World War II to draw in hundreds of thousands of agricultural laborers, primarily from Mexico. It wasn’t until 1952, however, that lawmakers attempted to regulate these programs, consolidating them in the comprehensive Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) passed that year. The INA introduced both the H2 visa and the H1 visa, the precursor to the H1B that would be formally established in 1990; a visa category for spouses and children was created in 1970 as an amendment to the INA.