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New H-1B visas still available

Slack demand for the controversial visas could be a sign that interest in hiring foreign tech workers is flagging.

Employers still aren't close to snapping up the 20,000 extra H-1B visas Congress authorized for this year, a possible sign that demand for foreign tech workers is flagging.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services on Tuesday said that as of June 29, it had received 8,069 petitions for the additional guest worker visas, which are reserved for skilled foreign workers with an advanced degree from a U.S. institution.

The 20,000 visas were approved by Congress after this year's annual cap of 65,000 visas was reached as of the very first day of the federal fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2004.

H-1B visas, which allow computer programmers and other skilled foreigners to work in the United States for up to six years, have been the subject of fierce debate in the tech industry. More than 600,000 new visas have been granted since 2000, many of them to foreign tech workers; in 2003, for example, 39 percent of H-1B visas approved were for workers in computer-related occupations.

Critics say the H-1B program fuels the shift of skilled-labor positions offshore, is ripe for abuse and undermines U.S. wages.

Industry leaders argue that H-1Bs serve instead as a brake on offshoring. They also defend the visas as a means to ease skilled-labor shortages and give U.S. companies access to international talent as they compete globally.

Slack demand for the controversial visas is somewhat puzzling. Businesses had called for an exemption along the lines of the one Congress passed.

Tepid interest in the 20,000 extra visas this year could signal that tech employers either are filling their openings with U.S. workers or limiting their U.S. hiring overall--possibly thanks to a shift of work overseas.

The continued availability of H-1Bs for 2005 could weaken the argument for increasing the annual limit, which has changed over the years. Business leaders including Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates have called for an unlimited number of H-1Bs. Critics of the visa program oppose lifting the annual ceiling.

There was some confusion about how USCIS would allocate the new 20,000 visas. But the agency clarified its position in May, which is also when it began accepting applications for the additional visas.

On May 24, the agency said it had received petitions for 6,400 of the 20,000 new visas.

An extra 20,000 visas earmarked for workers with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions also will be available in future years under the new law. The H-1B program also provides exemptions to the annual cap for institutions of higher education, nonprofit research organizations and governmental research organizations.