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3/22/2006
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The H-1B Visa Race Starts Soon; Will Congress Raise The Cap?

The feds will begin accepting petitions for H-1B workers on April 1. But the visas will run out fast since current laws allow only 65,000 H-1Bs to be issued each year.

If you're looking to hire foreign technology professionals in the coming months, you'd better have your paperwork ready now. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting petitions for H-1B workers on April 1 for visas granted in fiscal 2007, which starts Oct. 1.

But the visas will run out fast since current laws allow only 65,000 H-1Bs to be issued each year.

As Congress hammers out immigration reform, it's also considering increasing the ceiling on H-1Bs visas. A bill being drafted by Sen. Arlen Specter, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, which oversees immigration issues, is proposing to increase the number of H-1B visas issued annually from 65,000 to 115,000, with an option to increase the cap yearly by 20%. A spokeswoman for Specter says details of the proposal are still being worked out. However, the committee is slated to discuss immigration legislation on March. 27.

Last year, the U.S. government received enough petitions for H-1Bs by August—two months before the new fiscal year even started. And the year before that—fiscal 2005, which began on Oct. 1, 2004—the cap was reached on the first day of the fiscal year.

Tech industry groups, such as the Information Technology Association of America, as well as large tech companies like Microsoft, have been lobbying Congress to raise the H-1B visa ceiling. Microsoft chairman Bill Gates reportedly recently spent time in D.C. personally pushing for cap to be increased.

Because not all requests for visas are granted once they are forwarded to the State Department for evaluation, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration office generally accepts about one-third more applications than are approved. This year, that means around 90,000 to 100,000 requests for H-1B visas, says a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

If the ceiling is raised, it wouldn't be the first time. During the height of the dot-com boom and Y2K preparation, Congress approved increasing for a number of years the total H-1B visas that could be issued annually.

For fiscal 1999 and 2000, the annual ceiling was raised from 65,000 to 115,000. And for fiscal years 2001, 2002 and 2003, the H-1B limit hit its all-time high of 195,000 annually. The ceiling fell back down to 65,000 for fiscal 2004 and 2005.

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