"Uptake of H-1B visas this year is less than half of the annual prescribed limit and the rejection rates have gone up," said Indian commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma, who spoke at an economic forum in Washington, D.C.
H-1B visas are good for three years, and can be renewed for an additional three-year term, for a total of six years. Currently fewer than half of the 65,000 H-1B visas available from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for the upcoming federal fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, have been applied for, even though the application window opened April 1. That's down 30% from the application rate at the same time last year.
Sharma said he would ask his U.S. counterparts for measures that would help streamline the application process, which can take several months to a year. India benefits from the program in that its workers often return home after working at U.S. tech firms with experience that helps indigenous companies.
[Groups that represent tech workers oppose easing visa rules. Read Microsoft IT Hiring Problems Bogus, Say Programmers.]
Some U.S. officials have also expressed concerns that obtaining H-1B visas is too difficult and that the process hurts the American economy.
"In today's global marketplace, we cannot afford to keep turning away those with skills that our country needs to grow and to succeed," said New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, at a recent speech sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Partnership for a New American Economy. "I've called it national suicide--and I really think it is."
Bloomberg cited a number of studies that he said showed that immigrants working in high-tech fields help to create jobs for Americans through investments, entrepreneurship, and by helping U.S. companies become more competitive globally. "These high-skill workers will not only help create thousands of jobs, they'll also give us knowledge of foreign markets that will help U.S. businesses increase their exports."
Bloomberg said the United States risks losing top global talent to countries like China, India, Canada, and Chile, all of which have instituted programs designed to make it easier for high-tech professionals to immigrate. His comments echo calls for immigration reform by executives at major U.S. tech firms, including Microsoft.
The software maker says it has thousands of open positions it can't fill because it's unable to find workers with the right skills. Microsoft recently opened an office in Vancouver, Canada, with an eye to providing a base for overseas workers who are unable to obtain an H-1B visa or green card.