The biggest users of H-1B visas are offshore outsourcers, many based in India, or U.S.-based companies whose employees are mostly located overseas, according to data obtained and analyzed by Computerworld.
The analysis of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data comes as supporters of the skilled-worker visa program are pushing to increase the H-1B cap from 85,000 annually to 300,000 in the face of opposition from critics who contend that such visas undermine career opportunities for American tech workers.
The major beneficiaries of an increase in the H-1B cap would likely be pure offshore outsourcing companies, the analysis found.
"This is just affirmation that H-1B has become the outsourcing visa," said Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies tech immigration issues.
That said, the data shows that not all major H-1B users are India-based.
Microsoft, the primary public face in the U.S. for H-1B supporters, is the 11th largest user of H-1B visas. IBM is also a major user, but a significant number of the H-1B visas it is granted go to its India-based unit. Microsoft would not comment on the USCIS data.
According to the 2012 USCIS data, initial H-1B approvals, those for first-time applicants rather than renewals, jumped 35% year over year.
With that big increase -- which surprised many analysts -- the number of new-use approvals broke the 100,000 mark for the first time. A USCIS spokesman said the agency is confident that its data is accurate.
Some observers who reviewed the numbers speculate that the higher H-1B count may be the result of a shift away from use of the L-1 visa, which is used by companies with offices in the U.S. and abroad to transfer employees.
The somewhat surprising number of approvals for first-time applicants, however, doesn't change the overall H-1B trend.
India-based IT services providers, such as Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Wipro, Mahindra Group (which includes Satyam) and Larsen & Toubro, remain among the biggest users, as they are year in and year out.
An increase in the number of available H-1B visas will continue that trend and lead to more offshore outsourcing, according to Hira. "The failure of Congress and the Obama administration to close loopholes in the H-1B program is reducing job opportunities for American high-tech workers and undermining their wages," he said.
Hira contends that the latest H-1B usage data should give pause to lawmakers promoting the Immigration Innovation Act, a bill filed by a bipartisan group of 10 U.S. senators last month. If passed, the bill would immediately raise the H-1B visa cap to 115,000 and then allow it to gradually rise further to 300,000.
"If that bill were to be passed, we'd see a major hemorrhaging of American jobs and it would discourage American kids from studying high-tech fields," Hira said.
The current annual cap of 85,000 H-1B visas incudes exemptions for universities and nonprofit research organizations.
While the companies that vocally support raising the visa cap are typically U.S.-based, the USCIS data shows the largest H-1B visa users are offshore service providers like New Jersey-based Cognizant, which topped the 2012 list with 9,281 visa-holding employees. At the end of 2011, Cognizant employed 137,700 people overall, according to its annual report.
The full 2012 H-1B database, which is searchable by employer, is available online at http://cwrld.us/H1Bdatabase.
This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.