U.S. Companies Race to Fill Quota of Coveted Technology Worker Visas

By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The race opened yesterday for U.S. companies scrambling to get visas for foreign professionals, many from India and China, to fill engineering, computer programming and other technology jobs.

Immigration lawyers predicted that the quota of 65,000 professional visas, known as H-1B, would be claimed in just one day, reflecting increased demand. That would be the fastest the visas have ever been depleted. Last year, the supply lasted two months. The requests are filled on a first-come, first-served basis until the quota is nearly reached. The final applications are then chosen randomly.

"There is really nothing you can do to give yourself a leg up in the selection process other than get them in on time -- that means" yesterday, said Bo Cooper, an immigration lawyer with Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker's D.C. office.

H-1B visas are a relatively swift path to immigration for foreigners with bachelor's degrees and U.S. companies to sponsor them, making them popular. Immigrants, along with the U.S. technology industry lobby, have been advocating for an increase in the H-1B quota to reform the visa program and simplify the green-card application process. A bill, sponsored by Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), includes a provision to lift the cap to 115,000 as part of a congressional overhaul of immigration law. The H-1B program was introduced in the 1990s, and after the technology boom the cap soared to nearly 200,000 workers in 2004. The cap went back down two years ago.

Most H-1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to recruit workers anywhere in the world, are used to fill technology jobs, but doctors, teachers and accountants also qualify. The visa is good for three years but can be renewed as long as the visa holder remains with a sponsoring company.

Among the largest users of H-1Bs are Infosys Technologies, Microsoft and Deloitte & Touche, according to the Department of Labor's office of foreign labor certification.

Thick envelopes deluged U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services yesterday, and the agency brought in extra workers and expanded its mailroom at two service centers to handle the applications. Applications delivered before opening day are returned to the sender.

"We anticipate that this year the filing is going to close quicker, but we have no way of knowing," said Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley, who encouraged employers to continue sending in applications. "The worst that can happen is that we will send the application back."

Companies that don't land an H-1B have to wait 18 months before they can try again. The process of preparing applications can be lengthy and expensive, Cooper said.

Each application is 15 to 50 pages long and requires a description of the position, proof of the foreign applicant's credentials, petitions explaining why a foreign worker is needed to fill the job and a promise to pay a fair wage. Employers also pay upward of $6,000 in processing and legal fees to apply.

The program is not without criticism. Advocates for U.S. computer programmers worry that H-1B holders bring down wages and displace American workers.

"What may be good for our country as a whole may not be good for individuals," said Joseph E. Stiglitz, a economist and author. "We haven't thought well about how we compensate the losers."

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