H-1B visa count drops sharply in February

The number of H-1B visas requested during the month of February sinks compared with earlier months, suggesting the economic downturn may be affecting the demand for foreign workers.

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Laid-off H-1B workers face challenges
Efren Hernandez, business and trade director, INS
The number of H-1B visas requested during the month of February fell sharply compared with earlier months, suggesting the downturn in the U.S. economy may be affecting the demand for foreign workers.

According to numbers released by the Immigration and Naturalization Service on Tuesday, 16,000 H-1B petition requests were submitted in February, compared with 30,000 in January, 53,000 in December, and 33,000 in November. By comparison, 32,000 petitions were requested in February 2000.

The high number of requests in November and December likely show companies racing to file requests before the mid-December filing fee hike, which increased to $1,000 from $500 per application, said INS spokeswoman Eyleen Schmidt.

As far as the sharp drop in petitions during the month of February, said Schmidt, "We aren't speculating."

This drop in petition requests, however, does coincide with dozens of technology companies either laying off or reducing employees through attrition. In the past several weeks alone, heavyweights Cisco Systems, Intel and Motorola have cut workers or announced plans to reduce costs because of soft economic conditions and slower growth.

"It may reflect the downturn in the economy, but it's really too soon to tell," said Steve Camaroto, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Today's H-1B visa numbers are the first set released by the INS since Congress raised the visa limit to 195,000 from 115,000 last October, after strong lobbying efforts from people on both sides of the debate. Several high-tech companies lobbied for an increase in visas last year, arguing there was a dearth of highly skilled technical workers in the United States.

Despite a drop in requests in February, the overall number of H-1B visas issued and requested this fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, roughly equals the amount issued last year.

In total, 72,000 petitions have been approved this fiscal year through March 7, and 66,000 applications are pending, the INS said. Around the same time last year, 74,300 petitions were approved and 45,000 were pending.

With the cap on H-1B visas raised to 195,000, there are at least 57,000 more visas available to companies for this fiscal year.

This means the limit will not likely be reached until later than last year, when the INS stopped accepting applications March 21. More likely, 2001 will mirror earlier years when the cap was not reached until the summer months.

In 1999, the 115,000 cap was reached in June. In 1998, the 65,000 cap was reached in August, and in 1997 the 65,000 cap was reached in September, according to the INS.

Camaroto said if the INS numbers do signify further suffering of the economy, this could be bad news for foreign workers living in the United States. In the event of more layoffs, foreign workers could potentially find themselves out of work and, therefore, out of a visa.

"You can't just kick people out," he said. "They're entitled to be treated in certain ways."