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Speedier H-1B visa program under fire

A new program to speed the H-1B visa process is under attack from immigrants and likely to rile Americans who fear the growing ranks of foreigners in the U.S. technology industry.

A new program to speed the H-1B visa process for an additional fee is under attack from immigrants and likely to rile Americans who fear the growing ranks of foreigners in the U.S. technology industry.

The little-known program, which begins July 30, is criticized by immigrants and their advocates, who say it creates a sort of digital divide between skilled professionals and other foreigners who come to the United States, including their spouses and dependent relatives.

Skilled professionals with a job offer to work in the United States must usually wait six weeks or longer to secure their H-1B visas, which have a standard application fee of $1,100 (not including attorneys fees or related expenses). But the new service offered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service will guarantee a 15-day turnaround for an additional $1,000.

The INS promises customers who sign up for the Premium Processing Service an approval notice, denial, request for evidence or notice of investigation for fraud within 15 calendar days. If the INS fails to process the petition within that time, it will refund the $1,000.

Premium customers also receive a dedicated phone number and e-mail address to check on the status of their petition or ask any other questions they may have concerning their petition. The new service is a result of legislation that the U.S. attorney general signed in December to reduce the backlog of visa applications.

H-1B visas typically go to computer programmers and engineers from Asia, Europe and Israel, but the largest number of applicants come from India. Required to have a college degree or relevant work experience, the workers were an economical way to plug employment holes during the technology boom and hiring frenzy of the late 1990s, and their numbers transformed the technology industry.

H-1B applicants are now ubiquitous in California's Silicon Valley. San Jose has more ethnic Indians than 37 states, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The Indian population of tech hubs such as Fairfax County, Va., and Middlesex County, Mass., more than doubled from 1990 to 2000. In King County, Wash., home of Microsoft, the Indian population more than tripled.

The INS' new service aims to clear out an H-1B application backlog, especially in California and the West, where foreign workers must wait at least seven weeks after application to hear from the INS. But it's unclear whether the service will backfire or work as the government intends.

Murali Krishna Devarakonda, a director of the Budd Lake, N.J.-based Immigrants' Support Network, said offering a premium service is like the state of California opening a new lane on a congested highway: Although it may ease a backlog in the short term, it will ultimately encourage more traffic and eventually become clogged itself.

Devarakonda, a computer consultant working with an extended H-1B visa, also questioned what the premium service would mean for smaller companies that can't afford the $1,000 fee.

"What they're saying is that we'll give you poor service, and those who pay extra might get decent service--and 'might' is the operative word," Devarakonda said. "INS is a huge beast and there's little we can do to move it or shake it, but we'll take what we can. At least this might be temporary relief."

H-1B visa candidates for expedited service will likely be senior managers and highly paid consultants, immigration experts said. Because companies--not individuals--sponsor H-1Bs, they may be more willing to accept the $1,000 fee as part of the price for recruiting a top executive.

"The best and the brightest will want it. It's for companies trying to bring in the stars--the managerial guy transferred from the Tel Aviv office who's going to make $200,000 a year," said Jon Velie, who runs an immigration law firm in Norman, Okla., and also helps immigrants with an online visa application site. "Another $1,000 isn't going to matter if the guy is billing out that much in a single day."

The program is likely to come under attack from U.S. groups that oppose importation of workers. The anti-foreign movement is gaining support as the economy cools and companies lay off tens of thousands of workers, both American and foreign.

The Coalition for the Future American Worker is a Washington-based umbrella organization of professional trade groups and immigration reform groups. CFAW is bitterly opposed to any policy that encourages U.S. companies to look abroad for talent.

"Late last year Congress admitted thousands of special high-tech foreign workers, even as the economy was slowing and reports of massive fraud in the program were circulating," the group wrote on its Web site. "This year, many of those H-1B foreign workers are still sitting idle in the United States, while American high-tech workers are increasingly scrambling for employment."

Despite opposition, some groups say the program offers relatively little for immigrants--especially for those seeking a permanent green card instead of an H-1B visa, or for H-1B holders trying to secure visas for relatives. Although the premium service will soon be offered for H-1B visa applicants and is already offered to dozens of others seeking visas for employment reasons, it does not apply to those seeking green cards or family-based petitions.

"It raises a broader concern: Are we going to have a two-tier system of haves and have-nots?" asked Steven Thal, a private immigration attorney in Minneapolis. Thal's corporate clients have expressed interest in expedited service, but many individual clients have been waiting years for visas.

"Are we unfairly giving this advantage to business employment categories and not giving the same priority to family-based petitions?" Thal asked. "The answer certainly isn't for the INS to say, 'OK, we'll give families a priority and charge them an extra $1,000 for expeditious service.' We're going to be watching this situation very closely."