Update: U.S. says H-1B applications again top number of available visas

Feds will select 85k visa recipients via a random lottery for the second straight year

Editor's note: This story was updated with final applicant numbers on April 10, 2008.

The U.S. government said Tuesday that it has received more than enough petitions for H-1B visas to meet the annual cap for the 2009 federal fiscal year, requiring it to again issue the available visas through a lottery.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting H-1B petitions from companies seeking to hire foreign workers on April 1 and set a submission window of five business days for applicants to be eligible for the expected selection lottery. A record number of petitions was expected, due partly to pent-up demand from applicants who failed to get visas in last year's lottery, when 143,000 petitions were filed for the 85,000 visas that could be handed out.

In a statement, the USCIS did not initially disclose how many petitions it received during the five-day filing period, which ended Monday. Two days later, on Thursday, the USCIS pegged the number of H-1B visa requests at 163,000; another 31,200 applications were for foreign nationals who hold advanced degrees from U.S. universities

Before the lottery can take place, the USCIS first needs to finish entering data from all of the applications into its systems. The agency said that because of the number of petitions submitted, it isn't sure yet when it will be able to finish the data-entry work and select the visa recipients for fiscal 2009, which starts Oct. 1.

The USCIS received an excess of applications for both the 65,000 regular visas that are available annually and another 20,000 that are reserved for foreign nationals with advanced degrees from U.S. schools.

Under new rules adopted by the USCIS last month, advanced degree holders may have a better chance of hitting the H-1B lottery than individuals who are seeking a regular visa. The agency will first hold the lottery for the 20,000 advanced degree visas; petitions that aren't drawn as part of that process will then be added to the pool of applications for the 65,000 regular visas, giving the first-time losers a second shot at getting a visa.

The modified rules put in place by the USCIS also prohibited companies from filing multiple H-1B petitions for the same worker. That restriction was intended to ease concerns about possible efforts by companies to game the lottery in order to improve their odds.

Employers caught filing more than one petition for individual workers could have all of their applications denied or revoked. But the USCIS did still allow a parent company and its subsidiaries to separately seek visas for the same individuals, as long as the applications were for different jobs.

In another rule change that effectively increases the number of foreign nationals who can work in the U.S., at least temporarily, the Department of Homeland Security on Friday extended the amount of time that students who graduate from U.S. universities with science and technology degrees can hold jobs here without obtaining work visas. The DHS increased the time limit from one year to 29 months, a change that had been sought by technology vendors and other H-1B proponents in order to give the students a chance to try again if they didn't get a visa the first time they sought one.

Critics of the H-1B program believe that the extension announced by the DHS will hurt U.S.-resident graduates because they will be competing for jobs against a potentially larger labor pool. But H-1B proponents, including Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, claim that more foreign workers are needed because of declining enrollments by U.S. students in computer science programs.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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