A visa program designed to supply skilled foreign workers to companies in the U.S. has slowed sharply, attracting about 50% fewer petitions so far this year than last year, and 80% fewer than in 2009.
Several factors have contributed to the decline in H-1B visas, including the lackluster pace of the U.S. recovery, more opportunities for skilled workers in their home nations and higher visa fees, which appear to have spurred Indian companies operating in the U.S. to seek fewer visas. Attacks on the program by congressional foes of U.S. immigration policies have also cast a shadow over it.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told The Wall Street Journal this week that it received about 8,000 H-1B petitions from businesses in April, the first month the agency accepts them for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. That compares with 16,500 petitions in April 2010 and about 45,000 in April 2009, according to USCIS.
“It’s baffling that H-1Bs aren’t picking up if the economy is stronger,” said Steve Miller, a Seattle attorney who prepares petitions for employers in high tech, retail and other sectors.
For years, the H-1B program was a mainstay for software companies, architecture firms and other businesses that seek foreign nationals to fill certain jobs. Demand for the visas by companies outstripped supply, and companies such as Microsoft Corp. lobbied the U.S. government to raise the cap on the number of visas.
In 2008, employers snapped up all 65,000 visas allotted on the first day, April 1. But starting in 2009, after the financial crisis hit, the flow of applications has steadily diminished.
The program, which enables foreigners to work in the U.S. for three to six years, was created as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990 to help U.S. companies overcome a shortage of workers in specialty occupations, such as computer programming. Recently, the program has been attacked by lawmakers who say it displaces American workers and depresses wages.
Supporters and opponents made their cases at a congressional hearing held March 31, the day before the federal government began accepting H-1B applications.