US IT visa limit reached early

Some want the limit to be lifted

A controversial visa programme that allows US companies to hire foreign IT workers and other professionals has reached its cap for 2006 applications, a month before the US government’s 2006 fiscal year begins.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced last month that the 65,000-person cap on H1-B visas has been reached for 2006 and that no more applications under the scheme will be processed.

US companies use H1-B visas to employ professionals with specialised skills, including computer engineers, teachers and nurses. Compete America, a coalition of more than 200 companies, universities, research institutions and trade associations, said the USCIS announcement shows more H1-B visas are needed. After the US government’s 2003 fiscal year, in which 195,000 H1-B visas were allowed, the US Congress let the H1-B cap fall back to its pre-dot-com-boom level of 65,000.

The 2005 cap was reached on October 1, 2004, the first day of the US government’s 2005 fiscal year. The USCIS announcement “indicates acceleration in the demand for highly educated foreign professionals who play an important role in keeping the US economy growing and US jobs in America”, Compete America said in a press release.

Compete America doesn’t advocate a fixed-number increase in H1-Bs, but instead a year-by-year approach, says Eric Thomas, a spokesman for the group. If the 65,000 cap is reached in the first quarter of the fiscal year, Congress should allow 20% more visas for the rest of the year, and continue with the higher cap in the next fiscal year, he said.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an IT trade group, also called for more H1-B visas. “We believe a significant increase is required to meet America’s need for specialised skills and keep companies — and as a result, jobs for US workers — growing at a steady pace,” says Bob Cohen, senior vice president at ITAA. “Other countries are realising that talent does not recognise geographic borders or country of origin. If we want to be competitive on the world stage, our policymakers need to understand that too and raise the H-1B cap.”

But other groups, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA (IEEE-USA), have accused the H1-B visa programme of taking jobs away from US IT workers. US IT and electrotechnology professionals saw a 1.5% decrease in their salaries in 2003, the first decrease since IEEE-USA began surveying members in 1972, the group said in December.

In addition, the overall number of people employed in computer-related occupations in the US dropped by about 9,000 people from the first to second quarter of 2004, according to IEEE-USA.

Thomas disagrees that H1-B visas are hurting US wages. “The wage charge is really a smokescreen,” he says. “The government requires that H-1B employees be paid prevailing US wages.”

Having the visa cap reached is good news for US IT workers, IEEE-USA spokesman Chris McManes says. “It opens up job opportunities for US students,” he says.

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