High Demand for Skilled-Worker Visas Triggers Lottery

Demand for temporary U.S. visas for high-skilled workers resulted in a cap being reached within five days after the filing period opened April 1 and will trigger a lottery for the permits, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said today.

The employer-sponsored visa allows 65,000 professionals with a college degree or equivalent experience to work in the U.S. for three years with extensions to six years and beyond.

It took 10 weeks to reach the quota last year and until Nov. 22 in 2011. An additional 20,000 slots are available for the first petitions for employees with a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. university, and the agency said that limit was also reached.

USCIS will stop accepting employers’ petitions, the agency said in a release in Washington today.

The agency will use a computer-generated random selection process for all filings received through April 5. That means companies will have to wait, possibly for months, to learn if employees have gained credentials.

This year’s competition for visas takes place against the backdrop of a national immigration debate. A bipartisan group of eight senators is drafting a package on immigration policy which lawmakers hope to unveil next week.

“The implication is that with immigration reform happening now, and Congress coming back on Monday, it shows the problem of the H-1B immigration program,” said Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at Washington-based Brookings Institution who studies issues involving the visas. “It shows it’s a catch-all visa. The challenge for immigration reform right now is to deal with each piece in legislation.”

Dominate Applications

Companies in computer, math and science fields dominate H-1B visa applications and have spent years pushing for a higher quota. For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011, 48.9 percent of approved petitions for initial employment were in computer- related occupations, and 11.3 percent went to architecture, engineering and surveying professionals.

Advanced degree petitions that did not make it into the 20,000 exemption will be part of the lottery, the release said. USCIS is not yet able to announce the exact day of the random selection process due to the high application volume, according to the release. The agency is not yet saying how many total petitions it has received.

More detailed information will be provided next week, USCIS said.

Petitions that are exempt from the cap -- which include those for governmental research organizations and universities - - will still be accepted, according to the agency.

Previous Lotteries

The 65,000 cap for H-1B workers has been in place since 2003 with the masters exemption added in 2005. The program went to a lottery for fiscal years starting October 1, 2007 and 2008.

USCIS said in a press release last month that it anticipated that the cap could be reached within five days this year, spurring a lottery.

“There’s an underlying demand, and everyone has an incentive to jump in as quickly as possible,” said Bruce A. Morrison, chairman of Morrison Public Affairs Group.

Morrison is a former U.S. representative from Connecticut who chaired the House immigration subcommittee and was House author of the Immigration Act of 1990. He now works on behalf of IEEE-USA, a professional organization for electrical and electronic engineers, which opposes expanding H-1B.

“Once people believe that they’re all going to be used up, you’ve got to get your petitions in,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeanna Smialek in Washington at jsmialek1@bloomberg.net; Sarah Frier in New York at sfrier1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Wellisz at cwellisz@bloomberg.net

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