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H-1B visas going fast

This year's cap of 65,000 H-1B guest worker visas is already close to being reached, as employers race to snap up the controversial visas.

This year's cap of 65,000 H-1B guest-worker visas is already close to being reached, as employers snap up the controversial visas.

Last week, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services posted notice on its Web site that in the first quarter of fiscal year 2004, 43,500 H-1B visas had either been approved or are "pending in the queue for adjudication."

The federal fiscal year started Oct. 1, 2003. This year's quota for the visas, which allows skilled foreign workers into the country for up to 6 years, is a drop from the annual limit of 195,000 that was in place for 2001, 2002 and 2003.

Chris Bentley, a spokesman for USCIS, said the pace of applications is "somewhat accelerated" from last year, "but not greatly."

Information technology services companies with much of their operations in India may be among the biggest applicants for the visas, according to Lakshmi Narayanan, CEO of Cognizant Technology Solutions. Cognizant, an IT services company, is based in New Jersey, but most of its employees work in India. "Companies like us are applying like crazy?to get a greater proportion of the cap," Narayanan said in a recent interview with CNET News.com.

India-based companies with operations in the United States are significant users of the H-1B visa program as well as the L-1 visa program, which allows companies to temporarily bring in employees from other countries for managerial or executive work, or for work that entails specialized knowledge.

Indian companies' use of the visa programs has drawn fire amid layoffs of large numbers of U.S. technology workers in recent years. Critics also say the visas have fueled the shift of technology work overseas, another hot-button topic for U.S. programmers.

Besides a lowered visa cap, another change to the law in October was the expiration of rules affecting so-called "H-1B-dependent employers." Those rules required companies with a large proportion of H-1B workers to attest that they sought U.S. workers before applying for another H-1B visa, among other requirements.

Ron Hira, an H-1B visa critic and a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has predicted that India-based firms are likely to apply for H-1B visas in greater numbers with the elimination of the H-1B dependent category.

Companies pursuing H-1B visas also now can get them more cheaply. A $1,000 application fee expired in October. Employers now must pay a fee of $130.

A number of proposals have been made to reform the H-1B and L-1 visa programs, including legislation from Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn.

Defenders of the visas warn that even more IT work would go offshore if the visas are eliminated.

The H-1B visa program could be affected or even rendered obsolete by President George W. Bush's proposal for a new temporary worker program. A Bush administration official has indicated that the new program would apply to skilled workers.

The 65,000 cap does not apply to visa extension requests for workers who are completing their initial three-year stay in the country. H-1B petitions approved for employment with U.S. universities and nonprofit research organizations also are not counted against the annual cap.

Last year, a total of 105,000 H-1B applications were approved for initial employment, with 78,000 counting against the cap, according to USCIS.