Congress Faces Renewed Fight Over H-1B Visa Limits

Cap for FY '06 is reached; IT groups lobby for increase

High-tech trade groups will likely again push Congress to increase the H-1B visa cap, after the government said this month that it has already received enough petitions to reach the limit of 65,000 new visas set for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The Aug. 10 cutoff date for fiscal 2006 visa petitions was the earliest one ever for the controversial program and marked the first time that the application process has been closed prior to the start of a fiscal year.

The early cutoff, which was officially announced two days after it took effect, means that some U.S. employers may have to wait more than a year before they can bring in additional H-1B workers.

"It's becoming increasingly difficult for the best talent in the world to come to the U.S.," said John Palafoutas, vice president of the Washington-based trade group AEA. Palafoutas said IT industry groups have been meeting with congressional leaders "to figure out what's the best way to proceed on the issue."

It's possible that a "market-based" solution could be crafted that would include automatic triggers to increase the cap if there was a strong demand for H-1B visas, he added.

'Significant' Boost Eyed

Trade groups aren't specifying how much of an increase they may seek in the visa limit. But any expansion of the cap "should be significant," said Bob Cohen, a spokesman for the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va. "I think it's a real problem, and the longer we put off addressing it, the less competitive we will be."

Vic Goel, an immigration attorney in Greenbelt, Md., said the quick exhaustion of the fiscal 2006 H-1B allotment "obviously should be taken as a sign that we don't have enough visas" available—especially with the U.S. economy doing well.

But H-1B critic Ron Hira, who is vice president of career activities at IEEE-USA, questioned claims that reaching the cap so soon indicates a need for more visas.

Hira, who is also an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., noted that the fiscal 2006 limit has been hit before companies have even hired any new workers.

"It seems to indicate that companies are planning ahead for positions that don't exist right now, which highlights the fact that, contrary to conventional wisdom, they aren't searching for Americans first," Hira said.

Employers aren't completely out of H-1B options. An additional 20,000 visas became available in May for the current fiscal year, and a similar number will be offered in fiscal 2006. But Congress has limited those visas to foreign workers who have advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

As of early this month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had received 10,379 advanced-degree petitions for fiscal 2005 and another 8,000 or so for next year, according to spokesman Christopher Bentley.

Hira charged that if U.S. companies truly are in need of highly skilled foreign workers, the extra visas set aside for graduate students schooled in the U.S. would have been snapped up quickly.

"If they were hiring the best and brightest, that would be the first category to go," he said.

The USCIS will use a computer to randomly select applications from the visa petitions received by Aug. 10 until the fiscal 2006 cap allotment is met, Bentley said. All of the remaining petitions will be rejected by the agency.

Cap Numbers

The current H-1B visa limit is 65,000 per fiscal year, plus 20,000 for workers with master’s degrees or higher from U.S. universities.

FINE PRINT: 6,800 of the regular visas are set aside for workers from Singapore and Chile under trade agreements.

PREVIOUS LIMIT: 195,000 in fiscal 2001, 2002 and 2003.

ANOTHER OPTION: Congress this year approved the E-3 visa program, which makes 10,500 visas similar to the H-1B available to Australian citizens.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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