Global Mode: Models vs. Engineers

With the immigration bill all over the news, interesting factoids come to light. Did you know that: “The percentage of visas made available … to natives of any single foreign state for any fiscal year shall not exceed 7 percent“? China and Iceland are both allotted the same number of work visas to the United States each year, for example; some American attempts at visa equality create counterintuitive situations.

The non-immigrant H1-B visa is reserved specifically for those applicants who have earned at least a B.A. and whom an American company explicitly want to hire, commonly known as a “skilled-worker” visa. Think engineers, IT experts–and fashion models. A 1990 restructuring of immigration law created various types of visas, including the H1-B. “Athletes, Entertainment Groups, & Artists” fall into the P category; a J-1 visa applies to those participating in “programs that promote cultural exchange,” including medical training and post-doctoral studies.


iman for calvin klein 1980s

Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, who came to the United States to model before visas were divided into stringent categories, received a degree in Political Science from the University of Nairobi, in Kenya.


Fashion models, who many would argue are a significant cultural addition to our American way of life, were not included in any visa category until 1991, when Senator Edward Kennedy added them to the H1-B category. Neil Ruiz of the Brookings Institute suggests that this “curious” addition might have been arranged because H1-B recipients may apply for a green card, while those with P-type visas are not eligible for permanent residency. New York Mayoral Candidate Anthony Weiner sponsored a 2007 bill to add models to the more appropriate P group, but it did not pass.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported an imbalance in this visa grouping that apparently significantly affects the tech industry: models applying for the H1-B have only to prove that they are “well-known in the industry” (the Department of Labor requires they be “fashion models of distinguished merit and ability“). Software engineers applying for the same limited lot of visas must exhibit at least a Bachelor’s degree. Writers such as Bill Murphy Jr. of Inc. Magazine misleadingly emphasize that this year models were more than twice as likely than all other H1-B applicants to have their applications approved; Murphy waits a few paragraphs to admit that fashion models account for less than 1% of the H1-B visas awarded, about 250 each year (out of 65,000). Comparing approval rates and citing somewhat erroneous salary statistics, Murphy overstates the threat models pose to “computer professionals.” Ruiz noted the role luck plays in the allocation as a guest on the radio program “Take Two“: this year visas were doled out by lottery, and models seemed to be “luckier” than computer programmers.

With an inflexible cap on the number of H1-B visas doled out each year, adding models to this category theoretically created unlikely and unfair competition (the immigration overhaul would double that cap). Although the grouping is an odd one, do you think software engineers with bachelor degrees are more valuable to this country than fashion models?

Most reporting on this issue are quick to state that many models seeking H1-B visas have not acquired a high school degree, perpetuating stereotypes about a person’s worth stemming from her formal education and ignoring the many models that do have higher degrees (or began to pursue them); a dichotomy is set up between beauty and brains. As a country, are we worse off with 250 more models instead of 250 more software engineers? The addition of models to the super-competitive H1-B category is “bizarre,” but is it hurtful to the American economy? Love it or hate it, fashion is a trillion-dollar industry.

The perhaps more pertinent question, whether H1-B models are given jobs that might have gone to American models, is less often discussed in reporting about this issue; should this, instead, be the focus of the debate?

Let us know what you think below!

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  • Joy June 03, 2013 05.17 pm

    The end of this article is spot on. The focus should be on giving more American models gigs. The imbalance is shown in the job market for Americans and less for the overall fashion market.

  • Arianna June 04, 2013 02.00 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Joy! It’s simultaneously a very interesting/important and somewhat erroneous debate.


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