A major expansion of a program to bring temporary foreign workers to the United States contains a hidden holiday present for the nation's high-tech industry - a one-time bonus of more than 50,000 visas.
The new law passed by Congress in October not only raised the annual cap on the special visas, known as H-1Bs, from 115,000 to 195,000, but it also includes two separate provisions that effectively provide the one-time increase beyond the new cap.
Eyleen Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said that the exact number of visas above the cap has not been tabulated, because the agency is in the process of reviewing applications.
Abuses in the H-1B program were reported in a two-part Sun series on immigration programs. Supporters say the new law should limit exploitation of foreign workers by giving visa holders greater flexibility in switching from one employer to another.
Under one provision tucked into the new law, the INS will process thousands of pending H-1B applications, some of them dating back to March 22, when the visas allotted for the previous fiscal year ran out. Schmidt said the special provision applies to all the backlogged petitions filed before Sept. 1.
She said the agency hasn't tabulated the total number of applications to be processed, but from March 22 to Aug. 1, 29,000 applications were filed. The number filed in August has not been determined.
Under the terms of the new law, the visas filed from March 22 to Sept. 1 won't be counted against the 195,000 cap.
In addition to exempting the pending applications from the cap, the law will exempt those applications from a new $1,000-per-worker fee that pertains to all applications received after Oct. 1. The pending applications will be processed with the old $500 fee.
Schmidt said the INS noted a jump in applications when it became apparent that Congress was going to raise the per-worker fee from $500 to $1,000.
The second bonus category exempts from the new cap an INS miscount that resulted in 21,888 more H-1B visas being issued than Congress had authorized last year. An outside accounting firm, KPMG Peat Marwick, was hired by the INS to unravel the errors when the overcount was discovered.
Under the existing law, the overage could have been counted against the new cap, but Schmidt said the new law specifically "forgives the overage."
Schmidt said regulations to implement the new law are expected to be issued by early March.
Harris Miller, head of the Information Technology Association of America, said the passage of the new law demonstrates that "all the dire predictions" by opponents of the program were "completely unfounded."
He said it remains to be seen whether the increase will be adequate.
Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, a public watchdog group, said the new law and its special provisions come at a time when the high-tech industry is becoming the fastest-growing group of contributors to congressional candidates.
"This is just one example of what happens with that kind of growth," said Makinson, adding that there was "no question" the industry has become one of the biggest players in Washington.