Tech Firms Line Up At U.S. Visa Window

Tech firms line up at U.S. visa window

By Kara Rowland
The Washington Times
April 1, 2008

Technology firms across the nation are crossing their fingers today as the U.S. opens the annual visa application window for skilled workers. Last year, the annual cap of 65,000 was reached on the same day.

Despite industry's efforts to raise the issue with lawmakers and the public, this year's quota of H1-B visas is likely to disappear just as quickly.

“Without adequate access to these types of key employees, a lot of U.S. companies will be forced to cancel U.S. projects or move them offshore, like Bill Gates did,” said Ian Macdonald of the law firm Littler Mendelson.

The H1-B visa program allows companies in the United States to employ foreign workers with bachelor's degrees or higher in specialized fields, the vast majority pertaining to science and technology. U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services administers 65,000 visas each fiscal year. The agency sets aside an additional 20,000 visas for those who received a master's degree or higher at a U.S. school. The visas have an initial duration of three years, which can be extended to six.

There is no guarantee an employer's application will be granted, even if sent in on time with adequate supporting documents. Unlike last year, USCIS this year will accept applications for five days to account for postage delays. It will then randomly select those applications that will be granted.

But while the technology industry warns that failing to increase the cap translates into jobs going overseas, some say the issue should be addressed only as part of larger immigration reform; others oppose the program altogether, saying it undermines U.S. workers.

“The fact is most H-1B visas are going to foreign-based companies. U.S. businesses that need highly skilled workers are getting the short end of the stick. Americans are seeing ruthless tactics by some companies to bring in foreign workers, pay them less and increase their bottom line,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, wrote in a letter last month to Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Last month, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates implored Congress to raise the cap or face tougher competition overseas. Three bills pending in the House would do that in some form: One is a proposal to raise the cap to 195,000, another would exempt foreign holders of doctorate degrees earned in the U.S., and a third bill would raise the limit to 130,000 while increasing penalties for companies that violate the program.