Visa program hits quota within days

A popular U.S. visa program for skilled workers has hit its quota just days into the application period, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service said, triggering a lottery and signaling that companies feel confident enough about the economy to hire more foreign workers.

The H-1B program has not reached its base cap of 65,000 so quickly since early 2008, before the economic crisis hit. That was the last time a lottery was used, according to USCIS.

A separate H-1B allocation for master’s and PhD graduates from U.S. universities has also hit its quota of 20,000 visas, USCIS said.

After Friday, the USCIS will no longer accept applications subject to quotas.

The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa in the United States that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. The duration of stay is three years, extendable to six years.

The USCIS is allowed to authorize 65,000 visas this year under the H-1B program. The lottery will determine who gets those visas.

U.S. companies, particularly in technology, say they need the visas to fill vacant positions. But some worker advocacy groups counter that the companies are using the visa program to hire cheaper foreign labor.

— Reuters

Woman leads prayer, a Mormon event first

For the first time in the event’s 183-year history, a woman led a prayer Saturday at the semiannual gathering of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jean A. Stevens led the morning session’s closing prayer for the more than 100,000 Mormons gathered in Salt Lake City for the two-day general conference and the millions more watching via satellite, radio or Internet broadcast.

Among other church roles, Stevens is member of a three-person board that advises and assists parents teaching their children about the faith, which has more than 14 million members worldwide.

A feminist group launched a campaign this year asking church leaders to let women lead the opening and closing prayer — a first for the conference — as a symbol of gender equality.

Women hold leadership positions in the Mormon church but are not allowed to be bishops or presidents of stakes, which are geographic areas similar to Catholic dioceses. At past conferences, women have regularly given speeches and could pray in the audience.

— Associated Press

New York assemblyman will fight bribery charges: A New York state assemblyman is vowing to fight charges that he accepted $20,000 in bribes. Bronx Democrat Eric Stevenson told the New York Daily News in an interview published Saturday that he “unequivocally” denies that he took the money. Federal prosecutors charged Stevenson on Thursday with taking cash from developers of adult day-care centers. They say that in exchange for the money, the assemblyman pushed through legislation protecting the centers from competition. Investigators say they have video recordings of Stevenson accepting envelopes stuffed with cash. Stevenson would not discuss those details of the case with the newspaper.

Pastor Rick Warren’s son commits suicide: The Southern California church headed by evangelical pastor Rick Warren said his 27-year-old son committed suicide on Saturday. Warren’s Saddleback Valley Community Church near Los Angeles said in a statement that Matthew Warren had struggled with mental illness and deep depression. Warren, the author of the multimillion-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life,” said in an e-mail to the church staff that he and his wife had enjoyed a fun Friday evening with their son but that Matthew Warren took his life Saturday after “a momentary wave of despair at his home.”

— From news services