In fiscal year 2002 and 2003, the latest figures available, about 38% of visa petitions were for computer-related occupations, according to media reports.
Visa restrictions were tightened in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Heads of U.S. companies have complained that they have had trouble finding enough qualified employees and many have urged the USCIS to loosen the reins on visas for qualified workers.
"My suspicion is that these 20,000 visas will be used up very quickly," said Jonathan Meindersma, an attorney who has handled hundreds of H1B applications. "I'm suggesting that applicants get their cases prepared and do it quickly." He added that many of the applicants have high-tech and IT expertise.
Thursday's activity is for those with advanced degrees from U.S. universities; applicants with degrees from foreign colleges don't qualify for H1B visas, said Meindersma. "People without advanced degrees must wait until October," he added.
The previous H1B quota of 65,000 was filled on the first day of fiscal year eligibility on Oct 1, 2004. Congress granted an additional 20,000 visas for holders of advanced degrees. Meindersma believes the 20,000 positions could be filled in weeks, even days.
The attorney noted that there are different categories for educated foreign workers. Many have been classified under the "Optional Practical Training" (OPT) category, a temporary status that can enable an employee to work while waiting for a visa. Other categories permit foreign specialists to stay in the U.S., but they can't begin working until specifically approved.
Less than a month ago, Microsoft's Bill Gates told a technology seminar in Washington D.C. that Microsoft was struggling to find enough qualified employees and he called on the USCIS and Congress to relax visa restrictions. "We are very concerned that the U.S. will lose its competitive position," Gates said at the time, according to media reports. "The jobs are there, and they are good-paying jobs, but we don't have the same pipeline."
Meindersma cited a hypothetical case that he says is likely to affect students graduating this June with advanced degrees: Even though the students will graduate soon, certification should be prepared in advance. Students can qualify for visas before their commencement exercises, if their graduation requirements have been met. In such cases, a few days could be the difference between getting a visa and being turned down.
"Employers seeking to hire those meeting the eligibility criteria would be wise to start preparing cases immediately," Meindersma said.
Workers without advanced degrees seeking visas may apply for visas with an H1B status on October 1.
Filing fees are $750 for applicants in companies with fewer than 25 employees and $1,500 for applicants in companies with more than 25 employees.