H-1B Visa Quota Reached for 2009

Overcoming an early slump in demand for H-1B visas, U.S. employers again hit the cap of 65,000 for the controversial visas that allow foreign workers in specialty fields such as computer science and programming to work in the United States for three to six years.

Despite an early slump in U.S. employer demand for H-1B visas, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced Dec. 22 it had reached the 65,000 cap for the controversial guest worker visas favored by technology companies. H-1B visas allow companies to hire foreign workers with special skills to work in the United States for three to six years.
It took nine months in 2009 for the cap quota to be met, whereas the limit was reached within a week in both 2007 and 2008. Although early demand for H-1B visas was strong, with applications reaching 42,000 by April, demand began to fall off throughout the summer before kicking back up in October.
The same pattern occurred in the supplemental H-1B program, which is open only to foreign workers with advanced degrees. Although in 2008 it reached the supplemental cap of 20,000 in mid-May, it took until Oct. 25 to reach the same cap in 2009.
Historically, the demand for H-1B visas can be directly correlated with the state of the economy. In the 1990s, as the tech economy sizzled, Congress kept raising the cap, which peaked in 2001 with 163,000 of 195,000 available H-1Bs being issued. When the tech bubble burst and the Silicon Valley economy began to fizzle, demand fell, and only 79,000 visas issued. By 2004, Congress had dropped the cap to the current 65,000 but appeased the tech industry by granting the additional 20,000 H-1Bs for advanced degree workers.
Adding to this year's slow start is a new law that bars financial companies receiving federal bailout funds from applying for H-1B visas.
Critics of the program have long claimed U.S. employers are using H-1B visas to hire workers for less than the U.S. prevailing rate, but the controversy gained serious traction after the government released a 2008 report highlighting rampant fraud in the program. The report revealed a more than 20 percent violation rate by employers that use the H-1B visa program.
The controversy over H-1B visas prompted Sens. Dick Durbin and Charles Grassley to renew their quest for H-1B visa reform, on April 23 reintroducing legislation aiming to reduce fraud and abuse in the controversial program. The bill does not seek to dismantle the program or change the numerical cap of visas available to petitioning employers.
The two lawmakers introduced similar legislation in the last session of Congress but failed to rally support for the bill. The same fate seems to be in store for this year's effort. The legislation seeks to increase enforcement, modify wage requirements and ensure protection for both visa holders and American workers.
"The H-1B program was never meant to replace qualified American workers. It was meant to complement them because of a shortage of workers in specialized fields," Grassley said in a statement. "In tough economic times like we're seeing, it's even more important that we do everything possible to see that Americans are given every consideration when applying for jobs."
More recently, Rep. Luis Gutierrez announced legislation Dec. 15 that would raise the annual cap on H-1B visas and allow U.S. companies to recapture 309,500 unused H-1B visas from previous years. The legislation is part of a larger, more comprehensive immigration bill sponsored by Gutierrez and nearly 90 members of the House.