H-1B visa cap could be reached within a week

U.S. immigration officials may be just a week away from getting enough applications to fill the H-1B visa cap this year, shutting down a pipeline for companies that hire foreign high-tech workers.

The congressionally limited cap was reduced to 65,000 in October, the start of the new federal fiscal year, after being set at 195,000 for the previous three years. The actual number of visas generally available for the current fiscal year was further reduced by a free-trade agreement that specifically allocated 6,800 for use by people from Singapore and Chile.

U.S. immigration officials haven’t announced an exact cutoff date, but a spokesman said they expect the cap to be reached in the second quarter of this fiscal year.

But immigration experts and sources familiar with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services visa process said they believe federal officials are only a week away from cutting off new applications for visas for this fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30.

The early cutoff, six months shy of the new fiscal year, is not unexpected. Just last month, the immigration bureau said 43,500 H-1B applications, either approved or pending approval, had already been counted against the cap.

With a higher ceiling in place, the H-1B cap wasn’t reached during the past three years, as approved applications fell well short of the 195,000 visa limit. But the lower cap could force companies to alter their hiring plans.

“For an employer that wants to hire a foreign national for a given project — they won’t be able to do it until October,” said Vic Goel, an immigration attorney in Greenbelt, Md.

Goel said the reduced cap may prompt some companies to send more work offshore, as well as hinder their ability to hire the best and brightest students graduating from U.S. universities. But the reduced cap may also improve job prospects for U.S. citizens, he said.

“If you are in a situation where you are an out-of-work American, it may result in some employers looking at resumes that they may have disregarded the first time” because those applicants didn’t have the exact skill sets being sought, Goel said.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), said there are continuing discussions with members of Congress about raising the cap this year. But he said it’s too early to tell whether those talks will succeed.

Miller also sees a rising protectionist attitude that may make it difficult. “Right now, the mentality among a number of members of Congress is what I would call ‘fortress America,'” he said.

Unemployment among computer engineers in the last quarter of 2003 was nine per cent, said Ron Hira, who chairs the IEEE-USA Workforce and Policy Committee. He said there is no way of knowing for sure just what kind of impact the reduced H-1B visa cap might have on U.S. high-tech workers seeking jobs.

But Hira, who is an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an engineer, said the H-1B program is imperfect. He noted that his committee’s analysis of labor data on the use of the visa program by employers shows that some companies are paying H-1B visa holders at wages below what U.S. workers would get.

The H-1B visa “is supposed to work as a last resort rather than a first choice, and I’m not sure it’s working that way anymore,” he said.

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