'Premium processing' for H-1Bs draws praise, criticism

A new program that would speed up the process for approving H-1B visas for foreign workers but would also charge an extra fee is drawing praise and criticism among those involved in immigration issues.

Trying to clear the backlog of pending foreign worker visas, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) will initiate a premium processing service July 30, that would charge clients filing H-1B petitions an additional US$1,000 to complete the application requests in 15 days. Normal H-1B processing times range between 60 and 90 days and costs $1,110, according to the INS.

But while labor attorneys, companies and H-1B holders applaud any efforts to shorten visa processing times, some questioned whether the approach will have the intended effect.

Under the new program, INS guarantees that within 15 days of receiving an H-1B petition it will either approve, deny, provide a notice of investigation for fraud or request additional information.

Vic Goel, an immigration attorney at Goel & Associates in Tysons Corner, Va., worries that the INS will request additional information rather than approve petitions as a "means to get an additional $1,000" and as a "delay tactic."

But INS spokeswoman Eyleen Schmidt said the clients who use the new service will have a dedicated phone number and e-mail address to check the status of their petitions, allowing clients to respond quickly to requests for more information. She added the INS wouldn't ask for unnecessary information because it "only gives INS more work." She said the INS' goal is to eliminate the backlog within the next five years, which would then make the premium processing obsolete. .

The INS plans to use the fees to hire 450 more staff to work on the petitions starting in fiscal 2002, which begins in October. Companies filing H-1B petitions before July 30 whose cases are still pending at that time can also use the service, said Schmidt. In a statement, the INS said it would refund the $1,000 fee for any applicants whose petitions are not completed in 15 days.

"If the INS needs money and can guarantee it will be used for faster processing, then it should increase [service] across the board," rather than for applicants who pay just the $1,000 fee, said H-1B holder Murali Devarakonda, a senior consultant at ShaktiSoft Inc., an e-commerce consulting firm in Fremont, Calif.

While the $1,000 fee may be a "drop in the bucket" for multinational clients, it might be too much for small companies, said Goel. "You're creating a class of haves and have nots," he said.

But Schmidt said that while the service might be expensive for smaller firms, the extra fee is per petition, not per worker. So a company pays no more than $1,000, regardless of how many H-1B workers it wants to hire.

If the INS shortens H-1B visa processing times, more employers will likely file for H-1B petitions, particularly once the hiring outlook improves, said Michael McGinley, eastern recruiting manager at Predictive Systems Inc., a New York-based networking consulting and integration firm. Given the difference in processing times between regular and premium service, McGinley believes that he could "easily justify [the $1,000 fee] to a hiring manager."

The premium processing also applies to petitions for foreign workers in other areas, including agricultural workers, trainees and athletes and entertainers.

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