Immigration offices flooded with visa petitions for tech workers

Federal immigration offices have been flooded during the past two days with applications from technology companies for special visas for highly skilled foreign workers.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting applications on Monday for the 65,000 H-1B visas available for fiscal 2008, and the window for applications is almost certain to close by Tuesday evening.

USCIS spokeswoman Chris Rhatigan said that more than 150,000 H-1B petitions had been received by service centers in California and Vermont by the close of business on Monday -- more than double the amount visas that are available. USCIS is required to accept applications for at least two full businesses days.

Rhatigan said USCIS would begin manually entering the data for all the H-1B applications it receives during the first two days into a computer-generated system that will randomly select which ones will be evaluated for approval. She did not estimate how long the data entry process would take because it is not yet certain how many applications will be entered into the system.

"The computer-generated process makes this a fair and impartial system," she said.

The overflow of applications means that it will be a toss-up as to whether even the applications that were received the moment the filing process opened will be approved. Companies throughout the technology sector are looking to use the visas to fill vacancies for highly skilled jobs with foreign workers.

"As bad as a lot of people thought it would be, this is a lot worse," said Peter Roberts, an immigration lawyer at McCarter & English in Stamford, Conn. "The impact on companies is going to be commensurately worse."

Roberts also noted it is troubling that companies are seeking the visas to fill so many positions they do not feel can be staffed adequately otherwise.

Robert Hoffman, a lobbyist for Oracle and the co-chairman of the Compete America coalition, said closing the application process so quickly effectively will lock out students who are set to earn their degrees this spring. Applications for the next round of H-1B visas available for fiscal 2009 will be accepted in April of next year.

"It really indicates how important it is for Congress to address this issue," Hoffman said.

Two House members have floated a proposal to boost the current cap on H-1B visas to 115,000. But that proposal, sponsored by Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., is part of a comprehensive immigration reform package that addresses a host of other border security and citizenship issues - so its fate currently depends on whether Congress can pass expansive immigration overhaul legislation.

"We have every reason to believe Congress is serious about comprehensive immigration reform," Hoffman said. "It would address both the short-term and long-term problems."

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