H-1Bs now open to the less-educated?

Federal agency indicates additional visas for this year may not be limited to advanced-degree holders, angering a business group.

The H-1B guest worker visa program continues to be a lightning rod for criticism, with a business group blasting a federal agency for the way it is putting into effect changes signed into law last year.

On Tuesday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that it is working on regulations related to the new law . It also indicated that additional visas for this year, made possible by a fresh exemption to the visa program, will be available to a range of workers--not just to those with advanced degrees.

In December, President Bush signed a law that, among other things, exempted from the H-1B annual cap of 65,000 up to 20,000 foreigners who earn master's degrees or higher in the United States.

The cap for 2005 was reached on the very first day of the government's fiscal year, Oct. 1. H-1B visas, which allow skilled foreigners to work in the United States for up to six years, generally are given to individuals holding a bachelor's degree or higher.

"The available petitions for (fiscal year) 2005 will be applied to all qualified H-1B nonimmigrant aliens and will not be limited to those individuals holding a master's degree or higher degree from a U.S. institution of higher learning," USCIS said in a statement.

Compete America, a coalition that includes businesses, universities and trade groups, criticized USCIS for undercutting congressional aims and shifting course from earlier statements.

"The agency's decision to reverse its position on the allocation of the additional visas is troubling at two levels," Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel, said in a statement released by Compete America on Wednesday. "First, it seems to ignore congressional intent. Second, it shows blatant disregard for the business-planning process. Companies across the country have made staffing decisions over the past four months based on the agency's original statements."

Chris Bentley, a USCIS spokesman, stressed that the agency has not yet put the finishing touches on its new rules. "It's too soon to be able to comment," he said.

A statement from USCIS in December about the new law strongly suggested that additional visas for 2005 would be reserved solely for those holding advanced degrees. "The first 20,000 H-1B beneficiaries who have earned a master's degree or higher from a U.S. institution of

 

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