Work-visa applications tumble
By Rebecca Cole
Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — A deep recession and surging unemployment have tamped down the usual frenzied rush of companies filing temporary visa requests to hire skilled foreign workers, and the five-day application period that ended this week has been extended.
Immigration officials will continue to accept H1-B visa petitions until the limit is reached, they said Wednesday, and that could take until the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
In years past, an annual cap of 85,000 visas, including 20,000 slots for immigrants holding master’s degrees or higher from American universities, was met within days of the application period opening. In 2008, immigration authorities received more than 160,000 petitions from firms such as Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., among others, seeking to hire foreign-born experts in science, engineering and technology.
But when this year’s five-day application window closed Tuesday, only about half of the applications for the 65,000 general slots had been received, while requests for most of the 20,000 visas for those with advanced U.S. degrees had been filed, a Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman said.
At the same time, some lawmakers see the nation’s soaring unemployment rate as an opportunity to leverage a hospitable climate in Congress for curbing visa fraud and enacting "Buy American"-type protectionist measures to ensure that U.S. companies fill openings with American workers first.
Foreign companies seeking to place workers in American jobs were the big winners in the past, with Indian technology companies Infosys Technologies Ltd., Wipro Ltd. and Satyam Computer Services Ltd. netting 9,154 spots for the 2008 fiscal year, according to Citizen and Immigration Services. By comparison, Microsoft was awarded 1,037 H1-B visas and Intel got 351.
Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in an online posting last week that the company planned to file "substantially fewer H-1B applications" due to the economic downturn. In January, Microsoft announced it would lay off 5,000 workers, nearly 5 percent of its work force.
Wary of companies using the visas for other than their intended purpose of hiring immigrants to fill temporary worker shortages, Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have for years sponsored legislation to curb H1-B fraud. Their last bill died in committee in 2007, but the senators plan to introduce similar legislation after Congress returns from its spring recess this month, a Grassley spokesman said.
Industry experts worry that tightening the visa program will make it more difficult for American companies to recruit the talent they need.
"We don’t want to make the system so burdensome that, once we’ve educated them here, the best and brightest are told to go home," said Ralph Hellman, senior vice president of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council. "They will go back to India or China and work for the competitors of America’s leading technology companies."
(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)
A Justice Department indictment in February against New Jersey-based Vision Systems Corp. for an H1-B visa scam is stirring sentiment for lawmakers to take action.
The same month, Congress added an amendment to President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus act to clamp down on immigrant hiring at banks and other financial companies that received funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
(c) 2009, Tribune Co.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.