U.S. gets 236,000 H-1B petitions, a new record

On-going demand for visas won’t change the well-worn debate

The U.S. received 236,000 H-1B petitions for 85,000 visas available under the program's visa caps, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said Tuesday.

The visas are being distributed via a lottery, which means only about one in every three petitions will be approved.

The U.S. received 233,000 H-1B visa petitions last year, the previous record. The U.S. accepts visas on April 1 for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

If history is any guide, a majority of the demand for the visa is coming from IT services, offshore outsourcing firms.

Critics believe the high number of visas represents a form of "ballot box" stuffing by IT services firms in response to the lottery system. Applicants can apply for a visa for someone who is not an employee.

The lottery will prompt smaller firms -- start-ups, in particular -- to renew complaints about the lottery system. Employers trying to hire small numbers of visa workers may find themselves squeezed out.

The proponents of the H-1B visa say it's the growth in IT jobs that's behind the record number of petitions. Critics will point to offshore outsourcing engagements, where U.S. workers are fired and replaced by visa workers, instead as the driver of demand.

The current demand for visas will not the change the H-1B debate, but the election might.

The H-1B issue has gained attention in this year's election, thanks in part to Disney's layoff in 2015 of between 200 and 300 IT employees. Disney hired IT services firms that use visa workers, and some displaced workers complained of having to train visa-holding replacements.

Republican presidential candidates Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in particular, have cited the Disney layoffs in a push for reforms. Trump has the backing of the Senate's leading visa reformer, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also seeking the Republican nomination, supports a guest worker program, but has not offered any specifics.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Independent Vermont lawmaker now seeking the Democratic nomination, is also a critic of the visa program. But former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who leads Sanders in the Democratic nomination fight, has been silent about the H-1B visa and only talks about comprehensive reform.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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