A surge in the number of petitions for H-1B visas this year has led to the annual cap being exceeded in just five days, triggering a lottery, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services or USCIS. The agency announced it had received more than 65,000 petitions for the financial year starting October 1 by Friday, exceeding the statutory cap for the work visas. The number of H-1B applications from those holding advanced degrees from US universities and exempt from the statutory cap has also exceeded the limit of 20,000 for this category. The USCIS said it would no longer accept H-1B petitions in either category for fiscal year 2014. The USCIS had started accepting H-1B petitions on April 1, and had indicated last month that it expected to hit the annual cap in its first week. This is the fastest the cap has been reached since 2008, before the economic crisis hit later that year. A lottery was also last held in 2008 to award H-1B visas. The lottery for granting 20,000 H-1B visas under the advanced degree exemption category will be held first, and all advanced degree petitions not selected in the lottery will be added to the wider lottery to fill the 65,000 limit.
The USCIS has not announced the day on which the lotteries will be held. Those who are granted visas after this process will be able to start work in the US in October. Applicants from India and China have traditionally made up the bulk of H-1B recipients. Several US companies in recent years have called on the US Congress to increase the annual cap, pointing to a shortage of highly skilled workers. Some immigration experts like Vivek Wadhwa, a Fellow at Stanford University, have called for doing away with H-1B caps altogether. In a statement, Laura Lichter, President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said, “Reaching the cap so quickly shows that this limit set on recruiting foreign talent just isn’t based on actual labor force demand and the human resource needs of U. S. companies.” Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are currently working on comprehensive immigration reform legislation, and changes to the H-1B program could be part of an eventual bill. Last year, the H-1B cap was reached in June, a sharp improvement over the preceding three years (see box). This year’s jump in the number of H-1B applications indicates robust demand for hiring. But the news coincided with otherwise disappointing data on the employment front in the US. The monthly jobs report for March 2013, also released on Friday, showed only 88,000 jobs were created, which was dramatically lower than economists’ estimates, indicating the US economic recovery was still on slippery ground.