This spring, a U.S. high-tech company recruited British citizen Gareth Lloyd for a possible engineering job.
But before the Irvine office made its hiring decision, the number of available visas for skilled workers ran out, in a record time of less than two months.
Lloyd, who has degrees in applied physics and electrical and electronics engineering, found another job in Germany.
"I was a little bit incredulous," Lloyd, 34, said in a phone interview. "It seems arbitrary to put some kind of quota on this."
Much of the national debate on immigration has centered on undocumented workers who fill agriculture, construction and service jobs. But highly skilled foreign scientists, engineers and computer programmers recruited by U.S. companies to work here legally also have a lot at stake in the outcome. "The major focus for all the laws and all the bills has mainly been for illegal immigrants," said Swati Srivastava, an Indian software engineer who lives in Playa del Rey and is waiting for her green card. "We kind of get pushed to the sidelines."
The Senate's sweeping immigration bill that passed in May calls for increasing the number of H-1B visas, which are available for professional foreign workers, from 65,000 to 115,000 annually. Foreigners with certain advanced degrees would be exempt from the cap.
Despite President Bush's urging to increase such quotas, however, the House bill that passed late last year does not include any provisions for skilled-worker visas. And a conference committee, which would negotiate a compromise, has yet to be selected. U.S. companies complain that they are losing prospective employees to other countries because of a shortage of highly skilled and educated foreign workers. As a result, companies are either outsourcing science and engineering jobs or making do with fewer employees.
"There aren't enough U.S. citizens pursuing those types of degrees," said Jennifer Greeson, spokeswoman for Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., where about 5% of the company's U.S.-based employees are on H-1B visas. "U.S. companies being able to have access to talent, no matter where it originates, is key to our continued competitiveness."
But critics of the H-1B program argue that there are enough Americans qualified for the jobs. Companies just prefer to hire younger, less expensive workers from other countries, such as India and China, instead of more experienced American workers at higher salaries.
"The bottom line is cheap labor," said UC Davis computer-science professor Norman Matloff, who has studied the H-1B program.
The six-year visas are available to foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree. Firms must pay foreign workers the prevailing wage.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency begins accepting H-1B visa applications on April 1 each year. The agency received enough visas to hit the congressionally mandated cap of 65,000 at the end of May this year, compared with August in 2005 and October in 2004. Those who receive the visas can begin work Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year.
There are also 20,000 additional visas available for foreign workers who earned a master's or higher-level degree in the U.S. The Citizenship and Immigration Services is still accepting applications for those visas.
Because the H-1B cap is reached more quickly each year, many companies prepare their paperwork ahead of time so they can be at the front of the line. But they say it's often difficult to make hiring decisions six months before the start date.
Orange County immigration attorney Mitchell Wexler has a courier ready on the first day to take his clients' completed applications to Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"The whole white-collar business community is kind of crossing our fingers" that the number of visas is raised, Wexler said. Highly skilled foreign workers, he said, are "the best and brightest" and should be invited into the economy.
"If we can't get them," Wexler added, "they will go to a country that will accept them, and they will get jobs in Canada, Australia and England and will compete against us."
One of Wexler's clients, Massachusetts-based Skyworks Solutions, develops and manufactures integrated circuits for cellphones. Connie Williams, senior human resources specialist at the company's Irvine office, said her firm was effectively cut off from a foreign labor pool that included Lloyd of Britain when the government stopped accepting H-1B applications.
Williams said she worries that if Congress fails to pass reform legislation, the door will slam shut even earlier next year. The company has just over 2,000 U.S.-based employees, roughly 100 of whom have H-1B visas.
"We need these highly skilled, highly educated, highly qualified engineers," said Williams. "These people are a needle in a haystack."