Specialty visa quota still unfilled after a week

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / April 10, 2009
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Demand has slumped for special visas to bring skilled foreign workers into the United States - another sign of the recession's severe impact on the nation's labor market.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees the program, said yesterday that it has received about 42,000 requests for 65,000 standard H-1B visas since it began accepting applications on April 1.

Last year, the agency filled its quota completely in seven days, and in 2007 the process took just one day.

"The last two years have been anomalies," said agency spokesman David Santos.

But demand for foreign workers with advanced degrees remains strong. A supplemental H-1B program that covers workers who have earned master's or doctoral degrees in the United States has nearly reached its quota of 20,000.

"What we're seeing is a demand for very highly skilled professionals," said Robert Hoffman, cochairman of Compete America, a coalition of pro-immigration businesses. "Half of the master's graduates in electrical engineering in recent years are foreign-born," he said. "Seventy percent of the PhD graduates in electrical engineering are foreign-born." Hoffman said companies are eager to hire these US- trained foreigners.

Companies apply for H-1B visas, then use them to bring foreign workers with special skills to the country to work for three to six years. While H-1B visas can be used to hire workers with all kinds of special skills, they're especially popular with computer and telecommunications companies.

With the US unemployment rate at 8.5 percent, its highest level in a quarter-century, critics of the H-1B program say that demand for the visas should be even lower.

"One has to ask the question why there's any H-1B visas being used up," said Ron Hira, professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a longtime critic of the program. "There's 5 million people who've lost their jobs in the past year, and many of them have good qualifications."

Hira said the visa program should be changed to ensure that companies try to hire Americans first. He also called for a ban on hiring H-1B workers to take jobs currently held by US citizens.

But Hoffman said the falling demand for standard H-1B visas shows the process is self-regulating. "When times are tough, the demand for foreign professionals declines," he said. "When times are good, there's an extraordinary demand."

Hoffman said the visa system should be redesigned to reflect market demand for foreign workers. He proposed letting the cap rise automatically if a large number of applications are received, up to an absolute limit of 180,000 visas per year.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at