WASHINGTON -- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is calling for "eliminating the cap on H-1B visas" and believes restrictive U.S. visa policies -- particularly the limiting of employment-based green cards -- are a form of "national suicide."
Bloomberg, who spoke Thursday at the U.S Chamber of Commerce about national competitiveness, has been an advocate for eliminating the visa cap, easing access to employment-based green cards, and doing more through visa policies to attract foreign entrepreneurs and encourage foreign students to remain in the U.S.
But Bloomberg's call for more H-1B visas comes at the same time the pace of visa demand is relatively low, as is IT hiring overall. In the immediate pre-recession years, available visas disappeared in a week.
In his speech, Bloomberg said that "temporary visas like the H-1B program help fill critical gaps in our workforce, but the numbers are too few and the filing process too long and unpredictable."
Bloomberg's didn't address arguments from H-1B opponents who view the visa as a way to bring in low-cost employees or displace workers through offshore outsourcing. Instead, he said that foreign workers are critical to U.S. economic success.
In years where the visa allocation has been quickly exhausted, said Bloomberg, "this leads to critical shortfalls not only in the software industry, but also in fields like engineering, electronics, pharmaceuticals, medical research and aerospace. This is just absurd to deny American companies access to the workers they need."
Even so, businesses aren't rushing to apply for H-1B visas this year.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has received 48,900 H-1B petitions so far toward its cap of 85,000, or approximately 57% of the visas available for the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Saturday. The U.S. can start issuing visas for the new fiscal year any time after that date.
This relatively sluggish pace of visa petitions is in contrast to 2008, when the U.S. received some 163,000 visas within the first week after it began accepting applications on April 1.
The slower demand is "all tied to the economy," said Vic Goel, an immigration attorney. "The jobless recovery hasn't really helped in terms of H-1B interest spiking."
"The economy is slow - it's really that simple," said Brian Halliday, an immigration attorney based in Cleveland.
The number of visa petitions last year was low as well, and that has helped to eliminate any pent-up demand that could accelerate visa usage, said Goel, who is based in Reston, Va.
Goel, however, said visa demand is nonetheless "fairly healthy," and the slower pace demonstrates that usage "does indeed ebb and flow with the state of the economy." He believes that helps to make the case for less-restrictive visa policies.
Despite the slower pace, it is expected that all 85,000 visa slots for the 2012 fiscal year will be used up by early next year.
Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is email@example.com.