The cap was reached in record time. There were 150,000 applications for 65,000 H-1B visa slots on Monday, April 2, when the process officially began. By the end of the day all of the visas were taken.
Corporations whose H-1B applications are not selected will have their filing fees refunded. All applications received on April 4 or later will be rejected.
The H-1B cap was hit in record time. Two years ago it occurred in August, and last year the limit was reached in May. The latest round of the visas, which allow immigrants with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent professional experience to work in the U.S., are for the 2008 fiscal year beginning October 1.
If a company doesn’t obtain H-1B visas this year, it will have to wait until October 2008 to employ foreign high-tech workers, assuming its application is accepted.
An additional 20,000 spots are available annually for foreign nationals who have advanced degrees. USCIS hasn’t determined whether those slots have been filled.
Companies clamoring to hire international talent in science, technology, engineering and computer programming say there aren’t enough U.S. candidates for those jobs.
"Our broken visa policies for highly educated foreign professionals are not only counterproductive, they are anti-competitive and detrimental to America’s long-term economic competitiveness," Robert Hoffman, vice president for government and public affairs for Oracle and co-chair of Compete America, said in a statement.
Arbitrary visa caps drive away foreign nationals who earn degrees at U.S. colleges and universities, Hoffman argues.
"We are now in the position of graduating thousands of the world’s top innovators, engineers and scientists and telling them they cannot work in the United States," he says.
Hoffman’s organization is urging Congress to increase H-1B caps and make other policy improvements this year. That may occur as part of comprehensive immigration reform. If a larger package fails, leaders on Capitol Hill have indicated that a measure on highly skilled immigrants may move separately.
A company can employ foreign nationals in the U.S. for only one year after they graduate if they don’t have an H-1B visa. Even if they do get an H-1B, they have just begun a long journey toward legal residence. The employment-based green card backlog stretches to back to those who applied at the beginning of the decade.
Uncertainty about the length of time that high-tech talent can stay in the country undermines business planning, says Lowell Sachs, senior manager of federal government affairs for Sun Microsystems.
"We need predictability," he says.
Companies also want to be able to integrate top performers. "When we hire this talent, we want them to make a career with our company," says Amy Burke, director of government relations for Texas Instruments.
If a company can’t hire high-skilled foreign workers, it may send them—and, perhaps, entire operations—to its facilities abroad. Or companies from other countries may hire foreign students once they graduate from U.S. universities.
Current immigration policies "are pushing people toward our competitors," Hoffman says.
Help could come in the form of a comprehensive immigration reform bill introduced in the House on March 22 by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona. That measure would raise H-1 B caps to 115,000 annually, increase employment-based green cards to 290,000 annually from 140,000, and substantially increase the number of spouses and children who can receive green cards.
But the H-1B program also has detractors with political clout.
"Unfortunately under current law, employers, especially in the high-tech industry, are abusing these temporary visa programs by exploiting workers, driving down standards and often facilitating the displacement of domestic workers and the outsourcing of jobs," AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said in a statement supporting a bill introduced on March 29 that targets visa fraud and abuse.
Controversy over H-1B policy notwithstanding, the queue for visas filled up instantly this year. USCIS girded for the onslaught of applications by increasing staff and space at processing centers in California and Vermont.
"We were prepared for anything," USCIS spokesman Christopher Bentley says. "We didn’t know what to expect."