The O Visa Wouldn’t Be So Popular If the H-1Bs Didn’t Always Run Out!

nobel_226pxAs explained in a recent Daily Journal article titled “Demand for extraordinary worker visas grows,” by Steven Crighton, a temporary (nonimmigrant) visa that’s sort of a pain to get–and not even profitable for lawyers to help with, in most cases–has been zooming upward in popularity recently.

It’s the O-1 visa, meant for outstanding workers who have a job offer in the U.S. to do specialized work in the sciences, arts, athletics, education, or business.

It’s not the sort of work visa you might choose to apply for if you had another choice readily open to you. The O-1 application process does, after all, involve proving that you’ve got extraordinary ability in your field and have received sustained national or international acclaim for it. You know, just pull out your Olympic medal or Man-Booker Prize (or at least your nomination for one of them).

Indeed, providing proof of such amazing-ness is not easy. Applicants will have to collect a big stack of documents–testimonials, employments contracts, critical reviews, endorsements, and so on. According to San Francisco attorney Kirsten Schlenger, who was quoted in the article, the immigration-lawyer tradition of charging flat fees often makes working on an O-1 “very unprofitable,” because “You always end up putting in so much more effort and time into them.”

So why has the number of O-1 filings more than doubled between 2004 and 2014, going from 6,981 to 15,164 (according to the U.S. Department of State)?

Simple: The visa that would have been most appropriate for many of these applicants is the H-1B, for temporary specialty workers. Only 85,000 H-1Bs can legally be given out per year. Last year, 230,000 people applied for them. That means many people were turned away not because they were ineligible, but simply because they weren’t lucky enough to be chosen out of the pile.

So, many workers’ O-1 applications may involve the equivalent of putting a square peg into a round (dare we say O-shaped?) hole. But at least the U.S.’s clunky and often irrational immigration system still provides this opening.