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H-1B Visa Applications Expected To Slow

Experts believe the weak economy will lead fewer companies to apply for H-1B visas this year, but that the 85,000 visa cap eventually will be filled.
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Employers probably won't have to rush as fast on April 1 to file their H-1B visa petitions for fiscal year 2010. While the U.S. government in recent years has hit the annual cap for H-1B visa applications within days of accepting them, the volume of petitions this year is expected to be lighter because of the recession.

But that doesn't mean the 85,000-person annual ceiling (including 20,000 exemptions for foreign students who graduate from U.S. schools with advanced degrees) won't get hit by the time fiscal 2010 starts on Oct. 1, or sometime during that new fiscal year. While fewer employers are expected to be seeking new H-1B visa hires, there are H-1B visa candidates who were closed out previously who'll be trying again.

"There is a backlog of lottery losers from last year. ... We'll hit the 85,000 limit," predicted Rebecca Peters, director and counsel for legislative affairs for the American Council on International Personnel, during a roundtable discussion Tuesday sponsored by Compete America, a coalition of technology companies, educators, and researchers.

That backlog includes people who have been waiting to convert from other categories of visas to H-1B status, including foreign students who received advanced degrees from U.S. universities and are working for employers as part of their one-year postgraduation training.

Fewer visa petitions will be filed this year because of the weak economy, but "the cap will be hit on or before the fiscal year because of the overwhelming number of companies using H-1B visas to change the status of people already working" at their organizations, predicts Robert Hoffman, co-chair of Compete America and VP of government affairs at Oracle.

Last year, within one week of accepting H-1B visa petitions, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service received requests for about double the 85,000 visas that could be issued for the fiscal year. Two years ago, the cap on H-1B petitions was reached in two days before the agency stopped accepting the applications.

For several years, groups such as Compete America have been lobbying Congress to raise the cap on H-1B visas, while opponents to the H-1B program have been seeking legislation to curb its use. Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., are expected to soon introduce a new version of H-1B reform legislation they previously authored that aims to eliminate H-1B abuse and fraud.

Hoffman said Compete America members are interested in working with Grassley and Durbin "to improve the integrity" of the H-1B program. However, they say, the cap on H-1B visas needs to be raised because "the market is different, the workforce larger" now than when the 65,000 cap for general H-1B visas was first set by Congress in 1990.

During the dot-com boom, Congress temporarily raised the annual cap on H-1B visas, hitting a high ceiling of 195,000 annually from 2001 to 2003. Each of those fiscal years, the number of H-1B visas issued was far fewer than the 195,000 cap.

"The cap needs to be market based," said Hoffman.

H-1B visa workers, who often have advanced degrees that are difficult to find among U.S. workers, help fuel innovation, said Hoffman. A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that for every H-1B visa worker requested, U.S. technology companies create an additional five jobs.

H-1B is a "job creator," said Dean Garfield, CEO of industry organization Information Technology Industry Council. "Given the president's pledge to create 3 million to 4 million jobs, H-1B is important for the U.S.'s economic success," he said.

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