Limit Reached For Applications For Skilled Worker Visas

The office of Citizenship and Immigration Services says it won't issue any more H-1B visas until Oct. 1, when the government's new fiscal year begins.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The federal government won't accept any more applications for a popular visa program that provides skilled foreign labor to U.S. companies, the office of Citizenship and Immigration Services said Tuesday.

Less than five months into the fiscal year there already are enough applications to fill all 65,000 slots for H1-B visas, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for the agency, a division of the Homeland Security Department.

The office planned to stop accepting applications at the end of the day Tuesday. No new applications will be accepted until April and no additional visas will be issued until Oct. 1, when the next fiscal year begins.

The H1-B visa program is controversial. Critics, including unions, say it allows businesses to fill jobs with cheap foreign labor rather than hiring Americans at higher wages. The high-tech industry and other businesses that use the program to fill jobs say they can't find enough qualified Americans to do the kind of work they need.

H1-Bs are granted to foreigners in specialty professions such as architecture, engineering, medicine, and computer programming. The visas are good for up to six years. Employers have to show that they are paying the foreign worker the prevailing wage and that hiring the H1-B worker doesn't harm U.S. workers.

About 78,000 H1-B visas were issued in 2003 fiscal year.

In response to the high-tech boom and the outcry from businesses about worker shortages, Congress in 2000 temporarily raised the number of H-1B visas available from 65,000 to 195,000. But that increase expired last Sept. 30 and the cap went back to 65,000.

Several industry groups and businesses urged Congress last year to keep the 195,000 limit in place. But with a slumping economy and the high-tech boom largely over, Congress refused.

Paul Zulkie, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said H-1B workers help keep the economy moving.

"The immediate impact of not being able to obtain an H-1B approval until October is that projects are put on hold, capital expenditures are deferred, and lives are thrown into chaos," said Zulkie. The association represents attorneys who often assist businesses and individuals in applying for H-1B visas.

Businesses had been bracing for Tuesday's announcement because immigration officials had said they were closing in on the visa limit. Some petitions that were not processed before September 2003 ended were counted against this year's limit and several thousand were set aside for workers from China and Singapore as part of trade talks with those countries.

Theresa Brown, U.S. Chamber of Commerce immigration policy director, said companies will find ways to deal with the limit. But when it "becomes a significant crimp in their operations" they are likely to go to Congress for relief, Brown said.

She questioned whether Congress would find a fix in an election year, particularly as the issue of exporting American jobs overseas becomes a common topic in the Democratic presidential campaigns.

President Bush has attempted to respond to other sectors of the business community wanting to import workers. He proposed a temporary worker program for people already working in the country illegally and those wanting to come from overseas.

"Immigration is a tough issue, but in an election year, all issues become more complicated," Brown said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said in a September hearing that he would not support legislation that was not in the long-term interest of the American economy and American workers. But he also questioned whether H-1B users could be blamed for American unemployment. Hatch chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has oversight of the issue.

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