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H-1B limit reached for next year

The U.S. already has enough petitions to fill the 65,000 slots, prompting new calls from tech companies for a higher cap.

The federal government has already received enough applications to reach the next fiscal year's cap for the H-1B worker visas so beloved by technology companies.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Thursday that it determined on May 26--scarcely two months after this year's application window began on April 1--that the number of petitions streaming in will exceed the congressional limit of 65,000 visas. The people approved in that round of applications are eligible to start work on Oct. 1, 2006--which is when the federal government's 2007 fiscal year begins.

Another 5,830 petitions had arrived as of May 26 for the separate 20,000 visas reserved for the 2007 fiscal year for foreigners with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions.

Regardless, employers seeking skilled foreign workers without such degrees cannot file petitions until the next application window opens on April 1, 2007.

Proponents of the H-1B program, which permits foreigners with at least a bachelor's degree in their area of specialty to be employed in the United States for up to six years, viewed the announcement as additional evidence that Congress urgently needs to raise the limit.

"This is bad news, as America keeps losing the race to other countries to attract the world's best and the brightest high-skilled workers," said Ralph Hellman, president of the Information Technology Industry Council, whose member companies include Apple Computer, Dell, Cisco Systems, IBM, Intel and Microsoft. "This further underscores the need by Congress to provide additional incentives to attract these workers."

Those large technology companies have claimed for years that such changes are essential for filling key gaps created by a shortage of qualified Americans. Some, such as Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, have gone so far as to suggest scrapping the restrictions altogether.

The industry edged closer to getting its way last week, when the U.S. Senate voted to raise the cap to 115,000 as part of a sweeping immigration bill. The measure also contains a provision stipulating that if that cap is reached in a certain year, then it can be raised by 20 percent for the next year. The government's baseline H-1B quota has remained at 65,000 since 2004 after peaking at 195,000 between 2001 and 2003.

That bill, however, is expected to face obstacles in the House of Representatives because of broader conflicts over the Senate's approach to immigration policy and border security.

Meanwhile, the H-1B system also has its fair share of critics. The U.S. division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which represents high-tech professionals, has argued that the current system lets powerful corporations nab foreign workers at lower salaries than they would pay their American counterparts--or, in the most unsavory cases, to keep American workers out of jobs entirely.

"We don't understand why the Senate wants to expand a program that numerous government reports have found leaves U.S and foreign workers open to exploitation," IEEE-USA President Ralph Wyndrum Jr. said in a statement. "Fraud, abuse and misuse of the visas is rampant. The program should be fixed before it is expanded."