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The division held a computerized lottery on Sunday to distribute the visas in random fashion.
There are 65,000 H-1B visas available each year, and an additional 20,000 available to students from overseas who have received an advanced degree at a U.S. university. The USCIS said it received 124,000 petitions between April 1 and April 5, and that the cap was exceeded for both the general and advanced degree categories. Applicants for the advanced degree exemption who did not receive one were put into the general lottery.
[ CIOs need to do more than chase H-1B visas. Read CIOs Must Innovate Or Go Home. ]
The H-1B cap was reached in a single day in 2008. But since then they have not filled this rapidly. The quota was not filled at all in especially lean years like 2002 and 2003. Last year the cap was not reached until June.
"It responds to demand. It's also an indicator of [economic] confidence," said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy. Anderson said at least some of the demand had built up since last June, as companies looked to expand and hire new talent.
The H-1B petitions are used to bring in specialized talent from overseas, and applies to any job that requires at least a bachelor's degree. They've become synonymous with importing high-tech talent, and computer-related occupations make up about 40% of the list; occupations in architecture, engineering and surveying are next, followed closely by education. (See page 16 of this report.) More than half of recent H-1B visas have gone to Indian nationals. The list of H-1B petitioners is dominated by Indian outsourcers like Tata and Wipro, and U.S.-based technology firms like Microsoft, IBM and Amazon.com.
In a time of near-stagnant hiring in the U.S., when even recent engineering and computer science graduates seem to have trouble finding jobs, the H-1B is a source of political controversy. There are groups that think there should be more of them, as was temporarily the case in 2000, 2001 and 2002, when Congress approved an additional 110,000 visas.
The Partnership for a New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration reform lobbying group of U.S. mayors and business leaders, including Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, issued a release highlighting Canada's new Start-up Visa program that encourages foreign-born innovators to come to Canada. Jeremy Robbins, director of the PNAP, issued a statement calling for immigration reform saying "the urgency to reform our laws has never been greater."
Kim Berry, president of the Programmers Guild, also wants reform. "They shouldn't be doing the lottery," Berry said. Instead, the USCIS should accept applications for 60 days and then award visas to the most skilled applicants. "H1-Bs are going to $12-an-hour pharmacy techs and dental techs," Berry said. "We've been proposing the solution and it's very clear that industry is opposed because they don't want the best and brightest."
He says the H-1B program prevents young Americans with science, technology, engineering and math degrees from getting jobs, which instead go to immigrants who are here at the whim of their employer, facing a kind of modern indentured servitude.
Anderson acknowledged that H-1B visas do offer companies a guarantee that they will have an employee for several years, longer if the employee wants to get a green card. But he said that "in a practical sense it's often the only way to hire a foreign national to work long-term for a company," he said. That includes hiring graduate students trained at American universities.
Phil Fersht, CEO of HfS Research in Boston, sees the rush for H-1Bs as a sign of the decline of the U.S. technology economy. "The reason H1-Bs are becoming used so quickly is the Indian economy has developed a factory for IT talent. They're very, very good at it."
The U.S. is no longer as good at developing technology workers, he said. "I talk to CIOs all the time and their number one complaint is that the talent they've got isn't good enough. Even those that have never outsourced now say it's the only way they can get the talent they need."
But U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (D-Iowa) have long argued that the H-1B system is rife with abuse by companies seeking lower-cost labor. H-1B reform is part of the broader immigration debate under way on Capitol Hill this month. The IEEE-USA endorsed Grassley's recent H-1B and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2013. Among that bill's aims are ensuring H-1B workers receive comparable wages to U.S. citizens with the same jobs, and barring employers from advertising jobs only to H-1B holders.