US visa cap could be reached within a week

US immigration officials may be just a week away from getting enough applications to fill the country's visa cap this year,...

US immigration officials may be just a week away from getting enough applications to fill the country's visa cap this year, shutting down a pipeline for companies hiring foreign IT workers.

The congressionally limited cap was reduced to 65,000 in October, the start of the new federal financial year, after being set at 195,000 for the previous three years.

The actual number of visas generally available for his financial year was further reduced by a free-trade agreement that specifically allocated 6,800 for use by people from Singapore and Chile.

Immigration officials have not yet announced an exact cut-off date, but a spokesman said they expected the cap to be reached in the second quarter.

However, immigration experts and sources familiar with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services visa process said they believed federal officials are only a week away from cutting off new applications for visas for this financial year, which ends on 30 September.

The early cutoff, six months shy of the new financial year, is not unexpected. Only last month, the immigration bureau said 43,500 applications, either approved or pending approval, had already been counted against the cap.

With a higher ceiling in place, the cap was not reached during the past three years, as approved applications fell well short of the 195,000 visa limit. But the lower cap could force companies to alter their hiring plans.

"For an employer that wants to hire a foreign national for a given project - they won't be able to do it until October," said immigration attorney Vic Goel.

The reduced cap may prompt some companies to send more work offshore, as well as hinder their ability to hire the best and brightest students graduating from US universities, he said. But the reduced cap may also improve job prospects for US citizens.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), said there are continuing discussions with members of Congress about raising the cap this year. But he said it was too early to tell whether those talks will succeed.

Miller also sees a rising protectionist attitude that may make it difficult. "Right now, the mentality among a number of members of Congress is what I would call 'fortress America'," he said.

Unemployment among computer engineers in the last quarter of 2003 was 9%, said Ron Hira, who chairs the IEEE-USA Workforce and Policy Committee. He said there was no way of knowing for sure just what kind of impact the reduced visa cap might have on US IT workers seeking jobs.

But Hira, who is an assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology and an engineer, said the visa programme is imperfect. He noted that his committee's analysis of labour data on the use of the visa programme by employers shows that some companies are paying visa holders at wages below what US workers would get.

Patrick Thibodeau writes for Computerworld

Read more on IT jobs and recruitment