Stringent visa regulations are hurting companies, universities

Employers are scrambling to find foreign workers as a flood of visa applicants prompts the government to decide their fate through a computer lottery.

Published May 20, 2007


Getting a work permit in America has become as much of a gamble as winning TV's million-dollar jackpot on Deal or No Deal.

Last month, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced that it's deciding the fate of more than 100,000 H-1B visa applicants through a random computer pick. The government decided on a lottery after it received 133,000 applications in the first two days. That's more than double the Congress-mandated cap of 65, 000. The agency stopped accepting applications after April 3.

Now, all eyes are on Congress as employers ranging from fledgling companies to Goliaths are frowning over the cap and the process. In the Tampa Bay area, the effects are felt at the university and colleges as well as companies such as Tampa's Pilgrim Software. The technology firm is awaiting word on the fate of three potential employees.

"There's nothing we can do," said Fay Utji, human resources administrator. "If they don't get the visas we have to turn down the offers."

In years past, Congress had raised the visa cap as high as 195,000. Supporters of the H-1B program say the present quota is arbitrary and unrealistic.

"We have a large number of employers here that are impacted adversely in their ability to recruit good quality talent," said Dilip Patel, an Oldsmar-based immigration attorney. "I think this is wrong, and it makes no sense."

Patel's clients this year were architects, accountants and computer professionals. He's already received three rejections.

"It's hurting our competitive nature in an increasingly global world," said Thomas R. Beckwith, chief executive of Largo-based Beckwith Electric Co. Inc.

The company relies on the visa to hire design engineers. Last month, it got lucky with its single applicant from Colombia. But the unpredictable process can be draining, Beckwith said.

"We have to look for people in countries where there are trained engineers and power system analysts," he said. "If I could hire from here, I would."

The high-tech industry took the hardest hit, said Bill Archey, president and CEO of American Electronics Association. Companies are scrambling to fill jobs, but there aren't enough American workers, he said.

Last year, the industry added nearly 150,000 jobs. That number would have been higher, had companies gotten more access to foreign workers, Archey said.

"This is no longer a kind of low-key optional issue," he said. "It's a crisis."

The stringent visa regulations have also hurt universities, which rely on lucrative, out-of-state tuitions from foreign students.

These students sometimes make up the bulk of the population in science, engineering, math and technology programs, said Maria Crummett, dean of international affairs at University of South Florida.

"International borders these days are meaningless, and it's critical for us to recruit the best and the brightest," she said.

In information technology courses, domestic enrollments slipped in the wake of the dot-com bust, said Kaushal Chari, chair and associate professor of Information Systems & Decision Sciences Department at USF.

"There's so much scarcity that it's been hard to meet the needs of the industry," he said.

Video game maker Electronics Arts says the shortage is pretty telling.

The company often looks abroad to recruit senior software engineers and graphic artists, said Craig Hagen, director of government affairs.

Last year, it hired 30 employees on H-1B. This year it filed applications for 34, of which five have already been rejected.

However, some groups argue that worker scarcity is exaggerated, and claim the visa program takes jobs away from deserving American citizens.

A study released in April by the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent pro-immigrant, low-immigration think-tank, concluded that employers use the H-1B program to primarily import low-wage workers. Wages for H-1B workers averaged $12,000 below the median wage for American workers in the same occupation and location, CIS found.

"Employers in the technology field are using these visas because they can get away by paying less and bypassing American workers, " said Jessica Vaughan, CIS senior policy analyst. "If there's really a shortage, that should be reflected in rapid salary increases, and that's not the case."

But area immigration attorneys and employers denounce the findings.

"By law we must file a labor condition, and the employer must pay at least the prevailing wage," said Christian Zeller, an attorney with Maney & Gordon, PA. The controversies haven't deterred companies such as Oracle and Microsoft from lobbying Congress to increase the cap.

Newly armed with a USF graduate degree in engineering, Ann Joseph says foreign students on campus have been stressed out since they heard that 20, 000 visas set aside for U.S. graduates have been depleted for the year.

Joseph, who is from India, and others are scrambling to find ways to stay in the country, while hoping for Washington to intervene as it debates an immigration reform bill.

"I guess, it's now left to God and the U.S. Congress," she said.

Madhusmita Bora can be reached at 813-225-3112 or mbora@sptimes.com

The H-1B visa

What is it?

A non-immigrant visa program established by the Immigration Act of 1990. It allows U.S. employers to hire highly skilled, foreign-born, temporary workers .

How long does it last?

Three years and it may be extended for another three.

Occupations most affected?

Computer programmers, architects, engineers, accountants, doctors, college professors, fashion models.

What is the current cap?

"Cap" refers to annual numerical limitations set by Congress. The current annual cap on the H-1B category is 65, 000. The H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004 set aside an additional 20, 000 visas for foreign workers with a master's or higher level degree from a U.S. university

Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services