New U.S. rule: One H-1B petition per foreigner

Concerned that some are gaming the system, immigration officials decree an end to duplicate applications that may boost a company's chances of getting coveted visas.

With another avalanche of petitions for H-1B temporary worker visas expected this year, U.S. immigration officials have adopted a new rule designed to address complaints that some companies are gaming the system.

Apparently, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has been receiving duplicate H-1B applications from companies for the same employee. About 500 duplicate applications were received last year, according to an Associated Press report.

The window for next year's H-1B allotments opens April 1. A new rule adopted Wednesday prohibits the practice of filing duplicate applications. Companies caught in violation will see their applications revoked or denied, and USCIS said it will pocket their application filing fees as well.

The goal of the change, USCIS said, is "to promote equal opportunity for prospective petitioners seeking visas for H-1B workers."

When the number of applications surpasses the annual visa cap set by Congress, USCIS opens a "lottery" of sorts, selecting petitions to approve at random from the first few days of filing. Clearly, if an employer is filing more than one application for the same employee, that raises its odds of getting picked in that pool, which is precisely what USCIS wants to avoid.

In recent years, the number of applications for H-1B visas within the first few days that the application window begins. The first 20,000 applications belonging to foreigners with U.S. master's degrees or higher are exempt from that cap, and petitions filed on behalf of current H-1B workers also don't count against the cap.

There is seemingly a loophole in USCIS's new rule, though: "related" companies--i.e., parent companies and their subsidiaries--are still allowed to submit multiple applications on behalf of the same foreigner for different positions, "based on a legitimate business need," USCIS said.

USCIS also said it also plans to choose from a broader pool of applications if and when the random selection process kicks in. In the past, when the number of applications has exceeded the number of H-1Bs available, USCIS has selected petitions randomly from those filed within the first two days, but starting this year, it plans to select from those filed during the first five days.

It seems questionable whether the changes in the rules will affect criticism of the lottery system, which has been a subject of disdain among H-1B fans and foes alike, particularly since the number of duplicate applications reported last year is so low compared with the overall number of petitions filed.

like Microsoft, Google, and Oracle don't like the set-up because they believe they end up unable to hire highly skilled workers to fill gaps in their operations. They would prefer to see Congress double or triple the cap and increase the number of green cards for permanent residents.

Programmer's Guild, a New Jersey-based group that represents American computer programmers and strongly opposes raising the H-1B cap, proposed this week that immigration officials also consider how much companies are committing to pay H-1B applicants and what "national benefit" they would contribute (for example, firms intending to outsource the would-be visa holders need not apply).