H-1B Visas Applications to Decline, Target Existing Workers

April 1, 2009
Applications for visas for highly skilled immigrants are expected to decline due to the recession, but technology companies maintain that foreign-born students represent a small but crucial part of the talent pool they must tap to remain competitive.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service began accepting H-1B visa applications for fiscal year 2010 on April 1.

There are 65,000 visas available for foreign workers who have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree. An additional 20,000 are available for those who have obtained an advanced degree from a U.S. university.

Last year, USCIS received 163,000 applications during the first week of April. It resorted to a lottery to determine recipients. This year, the demand is expected to drop, but observers predict that the visa limit will be hit.

The economy is affecting the way that companies are using H-1B visas. Many of the applications will be for employees who are currently working but were denied visas in previous lotteries, according to Robert Hoffman, vice president for government and public affairs for Oracle and co-chair of Compete America.

The workers are holding jobs under an optional practical training designation, which provides a 12-month bridge between a student visa and an H-1B.

In many cases, Microsoft is applying for H-1Bs for workers who are currently employed on L visas because they have transferred to the U.S. from a foreign operation.

What you are seeing is the program being used to meet different needs this year than in previous years,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel, on a conference call with reporters Wednesday, April 1.

The H-1B visas are coming under attack, however, as the country grinds through a severe recession. Microsoft plans to lay off as many as 5,000 employees, or 5 percent of its workforce.

Similar cuts at many other companies are raising economic anxiety and contributing to the backlash in Washington against H-1B visas, which detractors say deny opportunities to American workers and reduce salaries.

As part of the massive stimulus package, Congress imposed additional H-1B rules on companies that receive federal bailout funding. They will be forced to meet the same standard of proof showing American workers are not available that companies must fulfill when a majority of their employees hold H-1Bs.

In addition, Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, are expected to reintroduce a bill that would place the so-called H-1B-dependent requirements on all companies that use the visa.

H-1B workers constitute a minuscule portion of employees at U.S. companies, Smith said, but their skills are critical to helping Microsoft achieve product breakthroughs.

The U.S. does not produce enough scientists and engineers to meet the demand of the tech sector, according to Smith. He cited a 2006 study that showed that 61 percent of computer science Ph.D. students in the U.S. were international.

“We are going to need to continue to bring in that kind of extraordinary talent,” Smith said. “We’re not talking quantitatively about a large number, but we are talking qualitatively about people who boost economic competitiveness.”

H-1B opponents assert that using the visas is especially galling this year.

“During the down times, you get to see the absurdity of industry clamoring for H-1B visas in a recession,” said John Miano, founder of the Programmers Guild. “It’s cheap labor in good times or bad.”

But a study by the National Foundation for American Policy shows that for every H-1B position another five jobs are created.

Hoffman disputes the notion that a gain in H-1Bs is a loss for American employees. “These are visas that work to complement the U.S. workforce,” he said.

Top H-1B Visa Employers in 2008
 • Infosys Technologies: 4,559
 • Wipro: 2,678
 • Satyam Computer Services: 1,917
 • Tata Consultancy Services: 1,539
 • Microsoft: 1,037
 • Accenture: 731
 • Cognizant Tech Solutions: 467
 • Larsen & Toubro Infotech: 403
 • IBM India Private Ltd.: 381
 • Intel: 351
 • Cisco Systems: 422

Source: National Foundation for American Policy (

—Mark Schoeff