01:48 PM

Government Set To Issue 20,000 New H-1B Visas

There is a catch: To qualify for the additional H-1B visas, immigrant workers must hold a graduate degree from a U.S. institution.

A new law designed to ease the H-1B visa cap will allow an extra 20,000 foreign workers into the United States this year, provided they hold a master's degree or higher from an American institution, according to new regulations forwarded by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Wednesday to the Federal Register, the official daily publication for rules and notices of federal agencies.

The H-1B visa program is designed to help employers hire foreign workers with special expertise when such know-how can't be found among American workers. Though that's the spirit of the law, it's not required, a Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman says. The law requires employers to treat H-1B holders the same as American citizens, giving them, for instance, the prevailing wage for their skills.

Congress had placed a cap of 65,000 on H-1B visas to be issued a year. However, under pressure from industry, including the IT sector, Congress last fall voted to exempt 20,000 foreign workers from that cap, provided they earned a graduate degree from an American college or university. An initial interpretation of that law would have counted as exempt American graduate-degree holders who received one of the 65,000 visas already issued. About one-quarter, roughly 16,000, of the 65,000 visas already went to such graduates. Thus, according to the original interpretation, only about 4,000 of the new visas need be earmarked to graduate-degree holders of American institutions, leaving the remaining 16,000 up for grabs among all eligible foreign workers.

Not so, says Citizenship and Immigration. All 20,000 of the new visas will be "limited solely to those aliens who have received a master's or higher degree from a U.S. institution of higher education," an agency statement says.

Citizenship and Immigration won't accept any application for the new H-1B visas until May 12. Applications received beforehand will be rejected. Also, Citizenship and Immigration--a branch of the Department of Homeland Security--has suspended electronic filing of petitions from employers seeking these 20,000 visas in order to ensure fairness to companies that might not have broadband Internet links. The government suggests applicants use overnight courier services to deliver petitions. Once the 20,000 visas have been issued, the government will resume using E-filings for future H-1B visa applications. The address to submit an H-1B exemption petition is: USCIS Vermont Service Center, 1A Lemnah Drive, St. Albans, VT 05479-7001.

Beginning in fiscal year 2006, Citizenship and Immigration will exempt the first 20,000 H-1B petitions reflecting holders of U.S.-earned graduate degrees from the H-1B cap.

For the current fiscal year, the government received more than 100,000 petitions for first-time H-1Bs. The visas last for three years and can be renewed for an additional three years. There's no limit on how many renewed H-1B petitions can be granted. In addition, no limit exists for H-1B visas issued for employment at colleges, not-for-profit organizations, and government research groups.

The government doesn't keep tabs on the number of H-1B visa holders working but does track the number of petitions for the visas by occupation. In fiscal years 2002 and 2003, the latest years for which figures are available, about 38% of petitions--new ones and renewals--were for computer-related occupations. About one-quarter of those petitions were first-time applicants; about half were for renewals. That suggests either less demand for IT professionals than earlier years or that IT employees are more likely to stay in the United States than other professionals.

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