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H-1B visas predicted to go fast

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in New York.

REUTERS/File 2012

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services office in New York.

By the end of the day Friday, the annual derby to secure special visas for foreign workers may be over after just one week, as a growing economy is prompting more companies to rush to hire tech-savvy foreigners.

The application period for H-1B visas began April 1, and US immigration officials predicted there will be booming demand for the visas, currently capped at 65,000 a year. An additional 20,000 visas are made available to foreign workers with advanced degrees, raising the total of available H-1B visas to 85,000 per year.

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Companies, rather than individuals, apply for the visas in order to bring foreign workers with special skills into the United States to work for three to six years. While available for any kind of workers with special skills, high-tech companies claim the largest number of them each year.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Service has said it expects to receive more than enough applications to fill the quota by Friday. If so, then the agency will use a lottery to award the visas. This lottery system was last used in 2008, the last time H-1B visas were in such high demand. That year, the quota was filled in a single day.

In Massachusetts, high-tech companies use H-1B visas to expand their roster of skilled engineers and to hang on to bright foreign students graduating from local universities. For example, a spokeswoman for chip maker Analog Devices Inc. of Norwood said her company is putting in for about 20 of the visas, for recent graduates with master’s degrees in electrical engineering. Without the visas, these graduates would have to return to their native countries.

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The visa rush comes as Congress is debating an overhaul of US immigration policy. One of the main proposals comes from a bipartisan team of eight senators, which wants to raise the number of H-1B visas to 115,000 per year. Some senators have suggested a flexible cap that could go as high as 300,000 annually if there was sufficient demand for skilled workers.

But another proposal, from longtime H-1B critic Senator Charles Grassley, a Repubian from Iowa, would tighten the standards for obtaining them. Grassley says the current system is being used by businesses to replace skilled American workers with lower-paid foreigners.

Under current law, workers must be paid the local prevailing wage in their field. But Grassley and Ron Hira, professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, both contend that the wage standard is much lower than what American workers are usually paid. Under the Grassley plan, foreign workers would have to be paid either the prevailing wage, or the median average wage paid to Americans in the same jobs, whichever was higher.

“If that was passed I think that would solve most of the problems with the program,” said Hira. “It would raise the wage floor so H-1B workers couldn’t be used as a cheap labor force.”

The Grassley plan would also limit the number of visas at companies with more than 50 employees and bar firms from hiring H-1B workers simply so that they could “outsource” them to other companies. This would cause major problems for the biggest consumers of H-1B visas, Indian companies like Infosys Technologies Ltd. and Wipro Ltd. These companies use the visas to hire tens of thousands of foreign workers and assign them to US firms.

Andre Mayer, senior vice president for research at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said his organization favors an expansion of the H-1B program. He said the state’s high-technology companies have an insatiable need for well-educated workers.

“We need people who can do the job better than anyone else, and a very high proportion of very highly qualified people turn out to be from outside the United States,” Mayer said.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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