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H-1B visa expansion clarified

Some 20,000 new guest worker visas this year will be reserved for foreigners with an advanced degree from a U.S. academic institution.

Federal officials have announced long-awaited guidelines for how 20,000 new H-1B guest worker visas will be awarded this year.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency in charge of the controversial visa program, on Wednesday said the visas will be reserved for foreign workers who have received a master's or higher degree from a U.S. institution of higher education.

Confusion had swirled around the 20,000 visas, which Congress added last year to the H-1B program's annual cap of 65,000 visas. USCIS in March indicated the additional visas would be available this year to a range of workers--not just to those with advanced degrees. That upset a business group, which accused the agency of reversing its position and undercutting congressional aims.

H-1B visas have long been a flashpoint of debate in the tech industry. Microsoft leader Bill Gates stirred up the pot recently by calling for the elimination of H-1B visa caps.

Thirty-nine percent of visa petitions approved in 2003 were for workers in computer-related occupations, with nearly 37 percent of all approvals that year for workers born in India.

Critics have blasted the H-1B program as undermining U.S. wages, being ripe for abuse and fueling the shift of skilled work overseas. Industry leaders have said the visas serve instead as a brake on offshoring. They have also rejected the claim that H-1Bs amount to a cheap-labor program, defending the visas as a means to fill shortages and give U.S. companies access to international talent as they compete globally.

The annual cap, which primarily applies to applications for initial employment, has fluctuated over the years. It fell from 195,000 in 2003 to 65,000 in 2004, when employers hit the visa limit less than halfway through the government's fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

The cap for 2005 was reached on the very first day of the fiscal year. Provisions of the new H-1B law went into effect in March, but employers have not been able to apply yet for new visas for this year.

Applications for the additional 20,000 visas for this year will be accepted beginning May 12, USCIS said, assuming the new regulations are published according to schedule the in the Federal Register.