Business

H-1B visa quota fills up fast, despite new scrutiny

Stacked shipments of H-1B visa petitions outside a government processing center in Laguna Niguel, Calif., April 3, 2017. Possible changes to the program that allows technology companies to import foreign workers may be adding to an even heavier rush than usual this year. (Eros Hoagland/The New York Times)

Eros Hoagland/The New York Times

Stacked shipments of H-1B visa petitions outside a government processing center in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Monday.

The Trump administration’s vow to crack down on abuses of the H-1B visa system doesn’t seem to have dampened demand for the visas among the high-tech industry. It took just four days for US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to receive enough applications to meet its annual quota of 85,000 visas.

Businesses use H-1B visas to bring highly skilled foreign workers into the United States for up to six years. Every April, USCIS begins accepting applications for 65,000 standard H-1B visas and another 20,000 just for workers with advanced degrees in specialized fields. This year, the visa window opened on Monday ; on Friday morning, USCIS said it would accept no more applications.

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A USCIS spokeswoman said the agency doesn’t yet have a count on the total number of applications received this week. But the number of requests is usually far higher than the quota. For instance, there were 236,000 applications last year. USCIS will use a lottery to determine who receives the visas.

Critics of the H-1B program say US technology companies use it to bring lower-paid foreign tech workers into the United States, depriving American citizens of good-paying jobs. The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about the program, suggesting that it has merit, but also warning against its abuse. Over the past week, several federal agencies, including USCIS, the Justice Department, and the Labor Department, have said that they scrutinize this year’s visa application process to ensure companies use it only when they can’t find qualified Americans to fill the jobs.

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The administration is especially suspicious of large technology outsourcing companies, which apply for thousands of the visas, then use them to farm out workers to other companies. Some of these outsourcers are American companies like IBM Corp. But the biggest players, like Infosys Ltd., Wipro Ltd. and Tata Consultancy Services, are based in India.

According to a report in Quartz India last month, Infosys applied for more than 33,000 H-1B visas in 2016, by far the biggest number of any company. Tata came in second, with over 16,000 applications. But Quartz India reported that the Indian outsourcers have begun dialing back their use of the program because of the political conditions in the United States. A Tata spokesman, Benjamin Trounson, told the Globe that his company used fewer than 1,500 H-1b visas in 2016, “and we may use even fewer in the coming years.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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