WASHINGTON -- Businesses across the United States can expect some unwanted mail in the coming weeks: thousands of rejected visa applications for high-tech foreign workers.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is planning to return thousands of petitions after receiving more than 133,000 applications in two days. That far exceeds the 65,000 yearly cap for the H-1B visas, which allow highly skilled foreigners to work in the United States for several years.
High-tech companies say that the lack of visas will leave them without needed workers and hurt their ability to compete globally.
"Because of arbitrary visa caps, we are now in the position of graduating thousands of the world's top innovators, engineers and scientists and telling them they cannot work in the United States," said Robert Hoffman, vice president for government and public affairs at Oracle and co-chair of Compete America, a coalition of high-tech companies that includes Microsoft Corp.
Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for USCIS, said that the agency hired extra staff to sort through the record 133,000 pieces of mail. She said it would take several weeks to figure out exactly how many applications have been received, because each piece of mail could contain several petitions.
All the applications received Monday and Tuesday will be entered into a database, and 65,000 will be randomly selected for approval.
In addition, 20,000 additional visas will be allotted for foreigners with advanced degrees from American universities to stay and work in the United States.
"We have to be fair to everybody, and this is the best way to be fair," Rhatigan said.
Applications not selected will be returned to the sponsoring companies, along with the application fees, and will be "considered rejected," she added. Since the agency is required to accept applications for only two days, those received after Tuesday also will be returned to the petitioning businesses.
The next opportunity to file will be April 1, 2008.
Ted Ruthizer, chair of the Business Immigration Group at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, a law firm in New York, said that the record-breaking number of applications surprised industry experts and proved there is a "huge demand for foreign national professionals in a whole variety of fields."
"Everyone knew that there was going to be a crush of filings ... [but] nobody expected this," he said.
Ruthizer said that the impact of the visa cap on U.S. companies is going to be "worse than what most people think," and that the outcry will create significant pressure on Congress to increase the number of visas.
High-tech companies are already lobbying aggressively for a higher H-1B cap, or even an unlimited number that fluctuates with market needs.
A broad immigration bill introduced last month by Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, and Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, would increase the cap on H-1B visas to 115,000 a year and add more exemptions to push it higher. But the bill faces many hurdles, because it includes controversial provisions to create a large guest worker program and allow a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
In addition, Sens. Richard J. Durbin, another Illinois Democrat, and Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, have introduced legislation aimed at protecting American workers from being displaced by H-1B employees. It would bar businesses from hiring H-1B workers outsourced from other companies and give the Labor Department more authority to conduct employer investigations.
The Senate bill reflects criticism that the H-1B program depresses wages for American workers and has many flaws, including limited enforcement mechanisms.
Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the program lets companies displace American workers and pay below-market wages.
The hunger of U.S. companies for cheaper labor, Hira said, is one reason that the flood of H-1B applications is not surprising.
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told Congress last month that the United States should welcome an "infinite" number of highly skilled foreign workers to fill engineering, computer programming and other jobs that otherwise would go vacant.
The Software and Information Industry Association called on Congress this week to increase the cap on H-1Bs.
"The continued leadership of the U.S. technology industry is dependent on the ability of American companies to hire highly educated, highly skilled workers," said Ken Wach, the group's president. "If Congress does not take action to reform the system, the global competitiveness of many American companies will be threatened."