High-Skilled Worker Visas Dry Out For Immigrants, Businesses

WASHINGTON -- Many companies looking to hire high-skilled workers from overseas are out of luck after the government reached a cap on one visa category earlier this week.

The government had 85,000 H1-B visas to give away this year to foreign workers with specialized knowledge, with about a quarter slated for graduates of U.S. universities. This year, they were used up by June 11 -- meaning that, with some exceptions, other applications will be turned down.

It happened quickly, at least relative to the past few years. In 2011, the cap was reached in 33 weeks, while this year it took only 10 weeks.

For many companies, reaching the cap early in the year means either deferring or losing entirely job candidates who they have been recruiting for months. It also comes at a time when other high-skilled worker visas are so difficult to obtain, according to a report released Wednesday by National Foundation for American Policy.

Employment-based visas, which come in five categories, are impeded by immigration law issues like per-country limits, which make it more difficult for workers to immigrate from nations like China and India.

Those limits can mean wait times of up to 70 years for Indians in certain visa categories or 20 years for Chinese nationals, the National Foundation for American Policy found. Workers with advanced degrees from India or China were likely to wait about eight years to be granted a visa, according to the report.

Although Congress has several bills pending that are meant to tackle visa problems, they are so far still awaiting decision, despite urging from businesses. The House of Representatives voted in November 2011 to eliminate per-country limits on employment-based visas, as proposed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), but it has yet to be approved by the Senate.

For companies like Microsoft, problems with the current high-skilled visa system mean trouble finding the workers they need, given shortages within the United States, said Karen Jones, vice president and deputy general counsel of HR for the company. She said Microsoft recruits heavily within the U.S. and has invested in educational programs, but finds fewer computer professionals than needed.

"If we could find the workers here, we absolutely would prefer it. It's a lot easier, we don't have to go recruiting, we don't have to incur the cost," she said. "Unfortunately we just aren't yet there in the U.S. We hope we will, we hope our efforts to skill up the workforce will be successful, but in the meantime we have to be able ... to bring the talent in that we need from other places in the world."