New era of semiconductor manufacturing clashes with dated immigration laws

Elizabeth Trovall Jun 26, 2024
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For the 2025 fiscal year, the grant rate was less than 20%, according to a CATO Institute analysis of government data. Getty Images

New era of semiconductor manufacturing clashes with dated immigration laws

Elizabeth Trovall Jun 26, 2024
Heard on:
For the 2025 fiscal year, the grant rate was less than 20%, according to a CATO Institute analysis of government data. Getty Images
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Semiconductor manufacturing jobs are coming back to the U.S. in a big way thanks to the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act. President Joe Biden said as much in a speech last April announcing new semiconductor manufacturing facilities in Syracuse, New York. 

“We took action to make sure these chips were made in America again, creating tens of thousands and I mean tens of thousands of good-paying jobs,” he said. 

That’s an estimated 42,000 new permanent semiconductor positions and many tens of thousands of additional temporary jobs, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association.

While some may consider it a good problem to have, filling those roles in manufacturing and engineering may be a challenge.

“We are on the order of tens of thousands of jobs short of filling these when the facilities themselves are ready to come online,” said John Cooney, vice president of global advocacy and public policy for the semiconductor industry association SEMI. 

While the U.S. is playing catch up to build up the American-born workforce for those roles, he said immigrants will play a vital role in filling gaps. 

“We rely heavily on the H-1B program across the industry,” he said.   

The H-1B visa program is a lottery system for educated foreign workers in specialized fields. It’s a lottery because there are far more applicants than the 85,000 visas that are available each year. 

Intel engineer Harshad Surdi was among the more than 400,000 applicants awaiting an answer this spring. It was his last shot at the H-1B after graduating a couple years ago. 

“It was definitely a huge worry,” he said, “I’ve spent almost a decade in this country doing good research. You know, blood, sweat and tears went to all this. Whatever future I expected out of my time in the U.S. kind of hangs in balance in this visa lottery system.”

Lucky for him, Surdi did get an H-1B for this upcoming year. But that doesn’t mean his visa woes are behind him. Like many semiconductor engineers, he’s from India, and is facing a growing backlog to get his permanent residency or green card.

“I’ve seen many, many, many people who are disheartened by this and are now just giving up hope,” he said. 

He’s seen workers move to Europe or Canada because of visa issues. And he’s considered that option — but he’d rather stay in Portland where he can snowboard, rock climb, buy a house and settle down.

“I do want to build a life in the U.S. because my job is here, I really like it here,” Surdi said. “But there’s uncertainty of if I can stay in the U.S. — it kind of hinders me in making any long-term plans.” 

The demand for semiconductor workers is increasing. But the visa cap isn’t much different than what it was when the H-1B category was created under the Immigration Act of 1990, when the max number of visas was set at 65,000. The only significant, lasting change to the cap happened in 2004 when 20,000 additional visas were added specifically for foreign students graduating with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.  

Despite the stagnant visa cap, U.S. employers have sponsored visas for foreign workers at a growing pace. That mismatch between visas available and the number of applications has become more extreme in the last decade. 

In 2014, roughly 70% of H-1B visa applications were approved. For the 2025 fiscal year, the grant rate was less than 20%, according to a CATO Institute analysis of government data.

Immigration attorney Sandra Sheridan Reguerin, of Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy, has tracked how that’s impacted a major semiconductor employer she works with. For her client, the number of rejected visa applicants who are in their final year of eligibility for the H-1B has been increasing in recent years. 

“Even just of those that are at their last-ditch effort, only about 37% of those are getting the visas so the remainder of that, which is 63%, they (employers) have to figure out what to do with these people,” she said. 

Semiconductor employers could move them to other countries — some workers may decide to go back to school to extend their stay and others may qualify for other kinds of temporary visas. But it all interferes with company operations.  

“That investment went into that talent. And now it’s kind of disrupting the work,” she said. 

While the U.S. government may be investing in a new era of semiconductor manufacturing, the immigration laws supporting that workforce still face 20th-century limitations. 

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