WASHINGTON — A deep recession and surging unemployment have tamped down the usual frenzied rush of companies filing temporary visa requests to hire skilled foreign workers, and the five-day application period that ended this week has been extended.
Immigration officials now will continue to accept H1-B visa petitions until the limit is reached, they said Wednesday, and that could take until the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.
In past years, the annual cap of 85,000 visas -- including 20,000 slots for foreigners holding master's degrees or higher training from American universities -- was met within days of the application period opening.
Last year, for instance, immigration authorities received more than 160,000 petitions from firms such as Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., seeking to hire foreign-born experts in science, engineering and technology.
But when the visa window closed Tuesday, only about 32,500 applications for general slots had been received, while requests for most of the 20,000 visas for those with U.S. degrees had been filed, a Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson said.
Some lawmakers see the nation's massive joblessness as an opportunity to leverage a hospitable climate in Congress for curbing visa fraud into "Buy American"-type protectionist measures to ensure that U.S. companies fill openings with American workers first.
Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), wary of companies using visas for other than their intended purpose of hiring foreigners to fill temporary worker shortages, have for years sponsored legislation to curb H1-B fraud. They plan to introduce a similar bill after Congress returns from its spring recess later this month, a Grassley spokesperson said.
Industry experts worry that tightening the visa program will make it more difficult for U.S. companies to recruit the talent they need.
"We don't want to make the system so burdensome that, once we've educated them here, the best and brightest are told to go home," said Ralph Hellman, senior vice president of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council. "They will go back to India or China and work for the competitors of America's leading technology companies."
In the last few years, foreign companies seeking to place workers in American jobs were the big winners. Indian technology companies Infosys, Wipro and Satyam garnered a combined 9,154 spots last year, according to Immigration Services. By comparison, Microsoft was awarded 1,037 H1-B visas and Intel just 351.
Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, said in an online posting last week that the company planned to file "substantially fewer H-1B applications" because of the economic downturn. In January, Microsoft said it would lay off 5,000 workers.
It plans to create "several thousand" jobs in new growth areas, and the vast majority of hires will be U.S. workers, Smith wrote. But, he added, "to succeed and continue adding jobs in the highly competitive global technology business, Microsoft and other U.S. companies must be able to hire top talent wherever it is located."
A Justice Department indictment in February against a New Jersey firm, Vision Systems Corp., alleging an H1-B visa scam in six states has been stirring sentiment for lawmakers to take action.
The same month, Congress added an amendment to President Obama's economic stimulus act to clamp down on immigrant hiring at banks and other financial companies that received funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
The measure stipulates that TARP-supported companies cannot displace an employed American worker with an immigrant within three months before or after applying for H1-B status. Companies must try in good faith to recruit a U.S. worker for the position, and they must offer the job to any U.S. worker equally or better qualified.
"Protectionism, cutting research and development, and sending all the smart people home isn't the smartest way to keep America's leading edge," Hellman said. "We think sanity will prevail and that ultimately lawmakers and the Obama administration will work to not send the best and brightest away."