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As Government Cap on Work Visas Rises, So Does Confusion

By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page E01

The two engineers have been ready for months. One waits in Colombia, the other in Argentina.

They are experts in wind technology, a fast-growing segment of the electricity industry. Their employer, Tampa-based Granite Services Inc., says projects have been delayed as it awaits their arrival -- and their visas.

Jitendra Vyas, chief executive of Technology Ventures LLC in McLean. says the hassle of filing petitions for visas, along with the ever-increasing costs of salaries and benefits for employees in the United States, is forcing him to move business to India. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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So the company's human resources manager keeps an Internet browser open to the Federal Register, clicking its refresh button every few minutes. How many visas remain? Should applicants hold a master's or PhD? Will a bachelor's do?

The agency in charge is also looking for answers.

Last month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, said it would issue an additional 20,000 visas for highly skilled foreign workers because this year's cap had already been met. All 65,000 of the H-1B visas for this year were filled by U.S. businesses on Oct. 1, the first day of the government's fiscal year. In response to complaints from businesses, Congress in November passed legislation approving the additional visas, saying they should go to graduates of U.S. institutions with an advanced degree. But last month, the immigration agency said the visas could go to anyone with a bachelor's degree, confusing businesses and immigration lawyers.

As of yesterday, agency officials said Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget were still reviewing the criteria for the 20,000 visas. Christopher S. Bentley, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services, said businesses will have to wait for guidance advising them on who qualifies and how to apply.

"We can't comment on what exactly is going to happen," he said. "The hows, where and whats will all be summed up in that guidance. . . . We want to make sure this is done properly."

The discrepancy in details underscores the business community's criticisms of U.S. immigration policy. It also foreshadows a growing debate between government and business over immigration, one that has not been as fervent since the tech boom of the late 1990s. Back then, as programmers worked to stop anticipated Y2K problems, the industry lobbied Congress hard to increase the number of foreign workers they could hire, successfully increasing the cap to as high as 195,000 in some years. These same companies recruited engineers from overseas with competing offers, expense accounts and limousine rides awaiting their arrival in the United States.

The H-1B visa allows holders to live and work legally in the United States for up to six years. Many go on to receive green cards and live permanently in the United States; others go home.

When boom went bust, many did go home as the hunger for overseas workers -- and the visas -- waned. Last year, the cap on H-1B visas returned to 65,000, a number established by Congress in the 1990s. Now, as the tech economy attempts a comeback, buoyed by security contracts and federal investments, lobbying efforts to raise the H-1B cap have resumed.

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