Immigration

Fashion Models Vie With Engineers for Skilled-Worker Visas


Supermodel Kate Moss

Photograph by Terry O'Neill/Getty Images

Supermodel Kate Moss

If the tech industry gets what it wants from immigration reform, the U.S. will allot thousands more visas for software engineers and other highly skilled workers every year. Because of a decades-old quirk in the law, another group would also benefit: models.

The U.S. government grants hundreds of visas to models every year. Although more than half don’t have high school diplomas, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of federal data, the government puts them in the same H-1B category as scientists and software engineers, who need a college degree to qualify. Fashion models only have to show immigration officials that they’re well-known in the industry. “It’s the one exception that we all scratch our heads about,” says Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at Brookings.

Once upon a time all workers with “distinguished merit and ability” could get temporary work permits. Then in 1990, Congress passed a law limiting the visas to skilled workers with college degrees and capped the number of annual slots at 65,000. Separate visa categories were created for sports stars and entertainers. But Congress inadvertently left out models. “It just wasn’t something anybody talked to us about,” says former Representative Bruce Morrison, who chaired the House committee that helped write the law.

For a year, the fashion industry had no way to import fresh faces from Brazil or Belarus. Then Senator Edward Kennedy came to the rescue, tucking an amendment allowing visas for models into a 1991 immigration bill. Instead of lumping them in with entertainers, he created a special H-1B category that put them in competition with nerds.

It wasn’t a problem until the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, when U.S. companies started demanding visas for tech workers. Modeling agencies, with Morrison as their lobbyist, pushed Congress to create a special visa for models and found a champion in then-Representative Anthony Weiner. In 2005 the New York Democrat introduced legislation to free models from the H-1B cap. “What a guy!” squealed the Washington Post’s gossip column. “Bet those gals are soooooo grateful!” The bill went nowhere.

Weiner pressed on with a similar proposal in 2007. “Weiner Hot for Emigre Model Babes,” the New York Post blared. The bill died and, for obvious reasons, none of his congressional colleagues picked it up.

This year demand for H-1B visas was so high that the cap was reached five days after the application period opened. Models generally get fewer than 1 percent of the work permits—about 250 per year. The 844-page immigration bill being debated by the Senate would increase the number of slots to at least 110,000—meaning more visas for brains, and a little beauty.

The bottom line: For two decades, models have been competing with engineers for the 65,000 visas the U.S. allots for skilled workers.

Bass is a reporter for Bloomberg Government in New York.

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