As of Dec. 8, companies operating in the U.S. had filed more than 81,500 applications for so-called H-1B visas since the government's current fiscal year began in October, according to data released this week by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The H-1B program allows companies to bring skilled immigrants meeting certain conditions into the country for up to six years.
The U.S. government issues a maximum of 65,000 ordinary H-1B visas per fiscal year, and 20,000 additional H-1Bs to foreign nationals holding advanced degrees--meaning the program has a total cap of 85,000 visas.
With only about 4,000 H-1B slots remaining, foreign tech workers who do not receive a visa in the current 2010 fiscal year will have to wait until next October to reapply.
The heaviest users of H-1B visas last year were Indian outsourcers with operations in the U.S. Infosys, Wipro, Satyam, and TCS ranked first through fourth, respectively, according to USCIS.
Microsoft, which ranked fifth, was the top U.S. company in terms of the number of H-1B visa workers it employed last year. The software maker hired 1,018 H-1B visa workers in 2008, according to government records.
Critics of the program charge that U.S. companies are using at as a means to import cheap labor during a time of economic downturn.
Proponents, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, insist that H-1B workers provide an essential supply of hi-tech talent not available elsewhere. They also note that H-1B rules stipulate that employers of such workers must pay a prevailing wage and post the salaries of H-1B staff on notice boards.
Earlier this year, Congress passed a law that imposes limitations on the use of H-1B workers by companies receiving funds under the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
The "Employ American Workers Act" requires TARP recipients to, among other things, attempt to recruit Americans before they can hire H-1B workers.
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