Application deluge for high-tech visas forces lottery


LOS ANGELES — American companies are so eager to hire highly skilled foreign workers that a cap on new visas has been reached within a matter of days.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Friday that it has received more than 85,000 applications from employers seeking visas for computer programmers, engineers, physicians and other educated workers with specialized skills. Of the total visas, 20,000 are set aside for people with graduate degrees from American universities.

Because the 85,000 limit was exceeded within five days of the April 1 opening date, a lottery will be held to distribute the visas. A superstar software engineer sponsored by Microsoft has the same chance of landing an H-1B visa as does a person hoping to work for a lesser-known company.

“It basically shows the main problem of this system, which is that there’s no way of prioritizing. When this takes place, it’ll cause a big frenzy,” said Neil Ruiz, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Last year, the cap was reached in slightly more than two months. As the country emerged from recession in 2010, the cap was not reached for 10 months. The last time a lottery was used was 2008.

The flurry of H-1B applications is a sign that the economy is improving, according to Ruiz. It is also a sign that the demand for highly skilled workers is far outpacing the supply of visas.

High-tech companies such as Google and Microsoft are supporting a bill that would increase the cap depending on how many applications were submitted in previous years. The bill would also give green cards to foreigners with advanced science and engineering degrees from American universities. With comprehensive immigration reform a realistic possibility this year, changes to the H-1B program may become part of a larger package.

An H-1B visa allows a worker to stay in the U.S. for three years and possibly more, with extensions. Employers often submit permanent residency applications for the same employees. For those from India and China, who make up the bulk of H-1B scientists and engineers, the wait for a green card can last more than a decade.

A Microsoft executive said in a recent blog post that the company has 3,400 unfilled openings for high-tech workers.

“These open positions are a direct loss to the U.S economy today and risk forcing companies to look to base these positions in other countries — permanently removing them from the U.S. economy,” wrote Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president for legal and corporate affairs.

The shortage of skilled workers extends to the nation’s interior and to companies not typically viewed as high-tech. Caterpillar, based in Peoria, Ill., employs more than 10,000 engineers to design its bulldozers and other heavy machinery. Several hundred of those engineers, many from China and India, are in the country on H-1Bs.

“We’re just not producing enough graduates to fill the demand in the U.S.,” said Katie Hays, a government affairs manager. “Because of that, we recruit from every major university in America, and we still can’t fill the engineering needs.”

The current visa program funnels a portion of application fees to training programs for American workers, and any new legislation will probably do the same.

At immigration attorney Carl Shusterman’s Los Angeles office last week, workers loaded H-1B applications into boxes. His clients’ hopes of hiring a foreign-born engineer or physician now rest on a computer-generated lottery.

“It’s stupid to have a quota. We should let the market decide how many people are going to come in every year,” Shusterman said. “These are educated people that are contributing.”