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High-tech visa quota filled in 5 days

Even as the US Labor Department reported lackluster hiring of American workers, demand for visas for highly skilled foreign workers has exploded, rising to the highest level in five years.

On Friday, the US Citizenship and Immigration Service said it had received enough requests to easily fill its annual quota for H-1B visas — now set at 85,000 — just five days after opening the application window. That is the fastest since 2008, when it took just one day to meet the quota.

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The H-1B visa program lets businesses bring in foreign workers with specialized skills when they cannot find American citizens capable of doing the jobs. Companies, rather than individuals, apply for the visas, which are valid for three to six years. All manner of skilled workers are eligible for the visas, but they are primarily used by companies seeking engineers, computer programmers, and other high-tech workers.

Because the Immigration Service has an excess number of applications, it will allocate the visas by lottery. Of the 85,000 visas, 20,000 are set aside for workers with advanced college degrees and will be awarded in a separate lottery, for which a date has not yet been announced.

Demand for H-1B visas grows and shrinks along with the US economy. In the throes of the recent recession, applications for H-1B visas dwindled, and throughout the sluggish economic recovery, visa demand has rebounded slowly. It took 235 days to fill the quota in 2011, and 72 days last year.

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The big surge in applications comes even though the domestic labor market seems to be moving in fits and starts. Megan Naughton, an immigration attorney at Robinson & Cole LLP in Hartford, said that the boost in H-1B demand suggests better times ahead.

“When we get slow, the economy gets slow,” said Naughton. “When we speed up, the economy tends to get a little better.”

Naughton said that her office has seen an uptick in visa applications, as more companies filed on behalf of foreign workers with advanced degrees. Many of these workers earned their degrees as far back as 2011, but were eligible to remain in the United States on their student visas for up to 29 more months.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at
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