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Reforms demanded as H-1B visa limit reached

The federal government says it has received enough skilled worker visa applications to meet this year's cap, prompting one business group to call for reform of the controversial program.

The federal government has received enough H-1B visa applications to meet this year's cap, prompting one business group to call for reform of the controversial guest worker program.

No new petitions for first-time employment in 2004 will be accepted starting Wednesday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said this week. The cutoff means that the annual cap of 65,000 new workers has been reached less than five months into the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

The news prompted a quick response from American Business for Legal Immigration, a coalition of 200 corporations, universities, research institutions and trade associations.

"Our goal is to keep the U.S. economy growing and keep U.S. jobs in America. Sometimes this requires hiring a limited number of highly educated foreign professionals to fill technical or specialized positions," Sandy Boyd, chair of the group, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Reaching the 2004 visa limit less than halfway through the fiscal year is clear evidence that the system needs to be fixed."

The H-1B visa program allows skilled foreign workers, such as programmers, into the United States for up to six years. U.S. employers do not have to attest that they sought U.S. workers to fill the job before applying for a visa, but they are supposed to pay the prevailing wage to the guest worker. The cap does not apply to institutions of higher education or related nonprofit groups, or to nonprofit research groups or governmental research organizations.

Many H-1B visas go to technology professionals. One-third of the approved visa applications in 2002 were for system analysts or programmers, though that figure was down from half of all approved visa petitions in 2001, according to CIS.

Congress raised the annual cap for H-1B visas to 195,000 for 2001, 2002 and 2003. In the wake of a recession and major technology industry layoffs, Congress let the cap drop to 65,000 for this year.

Critics say the program hurts U.S. workers by taking jobs away from them and undercutting wages. The use of H-1B and L-1 guest-worker visas by companies based in India and elsewhere has come under scrutiny for allegedly fueling the movement of technology jobs overseas.

Technology industry leaders, though, defend the H-1B program as a tool to keep U.S. employers competitive. Backers of the guest-worker visas warn that even more IT work would move offshore if they were eliminated.

The American Business for Legal Immigration group on Wednesday suggested that foreign graduates from U.S. advanced degree programs in math, engineering and computer science should be allowed to remain in the country. "U.S. employers should have access to masters and Ph.D. holders whose education was paid, at least in part, through U.S. tax dollars," Boyd said. "It is counterproductive for the U.S. to train foreign scientists and engineers and then send them home to compete against American businesses."

Another proposal that may affect the H-1B visa program is President George W. Bush's plan for a new temporary worker program. Comments from a Bush administration official indicated the proposal may cover high-tech jobs.