Demand drops for H-1B Visas

Demand for a visa program aimed at skilled foreign workers, particularly in the technology industry, dropped by half in the last year, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told the Journal it received 8,000 H-1B petitions from firms in April, the first month to apply for the new fiscal year. The agency received 16,500 in April 2010 and roughly 45,000 in 2009.

Technology firms have consistently pushed for the government to increase the number of H-1B visas beyond the current limit of 65,000 per year, arguing the U.S. doesn't produce enough homegrown engineers and scientists to fill the number of vacancies for skilled graduates in those fields.

Critics charge the H-1B program has become a source of cheap labor for U.S. firms unwilling to pay the market rate for American-born engineers and argue guest workers cost firms less than their domestic counterparts. Expanding the limit is a tough sell politically, given the current unemployment rate.

Some lawmakers, including House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), have argued the distribution of the visas is flawed, with some visas going to non-technical personnel such as fashion models and chefs.

In addition, the Government Accountability Office found in January that a disproportionate share of the visas go to staffing firms based in India. Firms such as Intel have pushed Congress to reform the way the visas are doled out; any such reform would likely focus on ensuring American firms have first choice.