H-1B visas enable American employers to hire foreign workers in jobs that require advanced scientific or technical skills, such as engineers, scientists, and computer programmers. The law caps the number of visas issued at 65,000 per year, with another 20,000 positions reserved for applicants with a master's degree or higher. The latest application season began on 1 April 2010, and after one week, USCIS received 13,500 regular H-1B applications, plus another 5,600 requests for advanced-degree visas.
These numbers don't come close to the demand in previous years. Last year at this time, USCIS had about 32,500 applications for regular visas, about half of the 65,000 limit, while just about all of the 20,000 advanced-degree visas were taken up. Yet even those rates were considered slow compared to 2008 and 2007, where almost all H-1B visas were snapped up by this time.
The H1-B program has both vocal supporters and critics. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and trade groups like the Technology Policy Institute favor lifting the caps on H-1B visas, in order to bring more of the world's scientific and technical talent to the U.S.
But reports of enterprises and institutions abusing these visas have tarnished the H-1Bs. In 2008, Indian technology outsourcing companies grabbed one of every six visas issued. And last year the Department of Justice filed criminal conspiracy and mail fraud charges against 13 defendants for filing false statements and documents related to H-1B visas. As a result, some of the H-1B program's supporters in Congress have started distancing themselves from it.
Our columnist Beryl Lieff Benderly has also documented how postdocs with H-1B visas working on American campuses are more liable to be exploited, with lower salaries and fewer publications.
UPDATE 1: Amy Smorodin, v.p. of Technology Policy Institute wrote in to clarify that "the Technology Policy Institute isn't a trade group ‑ we are an independent, non‑partisan think tank".
UPDATE 2: ComputerWorld today reports on federal extortion charges levied against two employees of a Chicago-area IT consulting company that allegedly threatened retaliation against an H-1B visa holder who filed complaints with the Department of Labor about being owed back wages. The threats were allegedly delivered in unannounced late-night visits, with forced entry to the visa holder's home. The report says the victim used audio and video devices to record later conversations, which were given to investigators. The defendants face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.