Ask the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) how many H-1B visas it issued last year and you'll get a straightforward answer.
We don't know.
Ask which companies got the most visas and you'll get the same answer.
In fact, the INS has hired an outside auditing company to straighten out the mess that apparently resulted both from double counting and a computer programming error. Initial estimates show that in 1999, the agency might have issued 15,000 more visas than the 115,000 allowed by law.
"We've learned a lot," said William Yates, INS deputy executive associate commissioner, when asked about the problem.
Yates said the INS discovered that because of a computer error, some H-1Bs that had been approved at regional service centers were not forwarded to the INS central computer and were left out of the count.
Because of another error, the number of revoked H-1Bs was counted twice, leading INS administrators to authorize about 4,500 more visas than they should have.
How the agency will deal with the excess has yet to be determined, Yates said. Proposals to apply the excess from 1999 to the 2000 total have drawn strong criticism from industry supporters of the program and members of Congress.
Under the program, created by Congress in 1990, foreign citizens who meet minimum training and education requirements can work in the United States for a maximum of six years under the sponsorship of a company that needs their services. Congress originally capped the program at 65,000 such visas a year, but the number was increased temporarily in 1998.
Yates said INS now tracks nationwide totals every two weeks to keep closer tabs on the number of visas issued. The computer glitch has been corrected, he said.
Yates said the magnitude of the error won't be known until the audit by KPMG Peat Marwick is completed over the next few months.
Several proposals to increase the annual limit either temporarily or permanently are pending in Congress, including a measure co-sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham, the Michigan Republican who chairs the Senate Immigration Committee.
The bill, filed Feb. 9 along with Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Phil Gramm of Texas, would increase the number of visas for foreign high-tech workers to 195,000 for the next three years, up 80,000 from the current total.