Update: H-1B visa cap reached; IT groups may press for more

They aren't sure how many more visas they'd like to see

WASHINGTON -- High-tech trade groups will likely push Congress to increase the H-1B visa cap following today's announcement by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) that it has already reached the 65,000 H-1B cap for the 2006 fiscal year -– the earliest point ever at which the cap has been used up (download PDF).

Reaching the H-1B cap means that employers who need H-1B visas for workers may have to wait more than year before they can receive any additional visas under the program.

"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 tech industry group AEA in Washington, who said IT industry groups have been meeting with congressional leaders "to figure out what's the best way to proceed on the issue."

Palafoutas said it's possible that a "market-based" solution could be crafted that would include automatic triggers to increase the cap if there is a strong demand for H-1B visas.

H-1B visas are used to bring skilled workers into the U.S. in a variety of occupations, and are heavily used by high-tech companies.

The industry groups aren't saying how much of an increase in the visa limit they may seek this year, but Bob Cohen, spokesman for the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., said, "It should be significant."

"I think it's a real problem, and the longer we put off addressing it the less competitive we will be," Cohen said of the cap.

This is the earliest the H-1B visa program has hit the cap prior to the start of the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, according to Christopher S. Bentley, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

The U.S. set a cut-off date of Aug. 10, and federal officials will use a computer to randomly select the applications that arrived on that day until the cap allotment is met, said Bentley.

Employers are not completely out of options. Congress increased the cap by 20,000 late last year but limited those visas to foreign graduates of U.S. universities with advanced degrees. As of early this month, 10,379 visas had been applied for under this program, said Bentley.

Vic Goel, an immigration attorney in Greenbelt, Md., said the cap's quick exhaustion is a sign that the economy is doing well, and "obviously, should be taken as a sign that we don't have enough visas."

Goel said it means that employers will be "shut out" from getting additional visas for the next 14 months, until the start of the 2007 federal fiscal year.

One critic of the H-1B program, Ron Hira, an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and vice president for career activities at the IEEE-USA, questioned claims that reaching the cap so soon is an indication of need.

Hira said the 2006 visa limit was hit before companies have even hired new workers -- and they can't use the visas until the start of the new fiscal year. "It seems to indicate that companies are planning ahead for positions that don't exist right now, which highlights the fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, that they are searching for Americans first," Hira said.

Moreover, if U.S. companies were indeed in need of highly skilled foreign workers, the 20,000 visas available for graduate students at U.S. universities should have been used up quickly, said Hira. "If they were hiring the best and brightest, that would be the first category to go."

Until two years ago, the cap had been set at 195,000. Opponents argue that the H-1B visas are used to facilitate offshoring of IT jobs, as well hold down tech wages. Businesses say that because so many U.S. graduates are foreigners, the visas are needed to hire workers with the right skills.

The 65,000 cap is actually 58,200 because 6,800 of the total number of visas have been set aside for workers of Singapore and Chile under trade agreements.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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