Why I Had To Compete With Models For My Work Visa, & Why That’s Not OK

I may be from a city (Toronto) that’s little more than a hop, skip, and a jump away from New York, but the big, invisible border that separates one from the other means that I, like other non-citizens, can’t just waltz in and get a job at my local Starbucks. It also means that I, like hundreds of thousands of degree-holding, “highly skilled” businesspeople, computer scientists, and engineers, am lumped into the same category as fashion models when it comes to crazy-competitive US visas. “Huh”, you ask? Precisely.

The category of visa in question is the H-1B, a temporary work permit for “highly-skilled” employees with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, or its equivalent. Bloomberg came out with a report yesterday with the headline “H-1B Models Strut Into U.S. as Programmers Pray for Help”, which may seem rather dramatic, but the numbers tell a similar story (plus they really did find tech workers at the temple in Delhi.) The visa has an annual cap of 65,000 for all international applicants — a remarkably low number, and one that was reached in a mere five days this year after the government began accepting applications on April 1, necessitating a lottery draw just to deal with the surplus.

Debates in the Senate are underway in a move to raise the cap to 110,000, and rallies, demonstrations, and other campaigns for immigration reform have been held across the country to try to push the conversation forward. One thing some of them are talking about? The bizarre inclusion of fashion models under that oh-so-limiting cap.

The phenomenon dates back to 1990, when workers like nurses, artists, farmers, and more were split up into different categories and placed under different categories. Alas, they neglected to make one for models — apparently Congress weren’t big Vogue readers at the time — and so the poor, forgotten catwalkers were lumped in with scientists, engineers, and other less genetically blessed members of the work force.

In 2007, the now-notorious former Congressman and (ugh) potential NYC mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner sponsored a bill that would have moved models to the same category as performers and athletes, opening up a new visa for up to 1,000 to work in the United States and, as he then argued, encouraging companies to stage photo shoots and fashion industry events inside the country. But even with the sizable amount of support that he got, the legislation got tied up in the House and failed to pass.

Now, it goes without saying that the number of model H-1B applicants each year is far, far lower than that of other professions. Fewer than one percent of the H-1B permits are granted to the lanky stunners who grace the runways of New York Fashion Week and beyond. But according to rough figures compiled by Bloomberg from U.S. Labor Department data, models are almost twice as likely to have their visa applications approved as are computer programmers. The Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research organization, found that more than half of H-1B models have no high school diplomas, versus the 99 percent of total applicants with at least a Bachelor’s degree. One in four come from Brazil, and the overwhelming majority are seeking employment in New York.

These aren’t just any new faces, mind you. According to the USCIS, they do have to qualify as a “fashion model of prominence” with “distinguished merit and ability”, a fact which shows in both their agency’s willingness to pony up for the costly application process and their $161,000 median salary — although no word on how much Bündchen’s $45 mill per annum skews this figure. It would stand to reason that these kind of qualities would put them right in line with the many immigrant actors, artists, and athletes who make big money for their unique place in society and “extraordinary ability and achievement”.

Modeling requires energy, patience, personality, and, yes, long limbs, but one thing it doesn’t require is higher education and the kind of skills that professionals like engineers bring to the economy. And, unlike desk workers, they spend a significant portion of their time traveling outside of the country. It isn’t that the next Gisele Bündchen should be blocked from earning a paycheck in New York — she just shouldn’t be doing it on the same visa as the next Eric Schmidt.

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