USCIS proposes new electronic registration for H1B visa applications

New system would introduce the chance of random selections

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency said today it wants to establish a new electronic advance registration system for employers to request H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers, including IT workers.

The system is intended to reduce the burden on employers who file applications that are rejected because of a lack of available slots. If slots show signs of filling up quickly, the agency would randomly select the applications allowed to proceed, USCIS said.

The agency uploaded the proposed rule in the Federal Register today. It will be officially published in the register on March 3, with public comments accepted until May 2.

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Under the current system, employers file petitions for H-1B foreign workers — often IT graduates of U.S. universities -- typically at the start of the application period on April 1 each year. The total number of H-1B visas is capped by Congress, and in previous years the cap often was reached in hours or days after April 1.

Under the new system, employers would register electronically with USCIS in advance of the application period. During this time before the application period, if the agency determines that petitions would exceed the available slots, the agency would halt registrations. USCIS would then randomly select the number of registrations that would exhaust the available slots. Employers would then file petitions only for the selected registrations.

The new system would save employers the effort and expense of filling out lengthy H-1B petitions and Labor Condition Applications for workers whose applications would be rejected because they exceed the number of available visas, the agency said today. USCIS estimates the new system would generate $23 million in savings for businesses in administrative costs and other expenses over 10 years.

“The proposed rule would create a more efficient and cost-effective process for businesses interested in bringing workers in specialty occupations to the United States,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, USCIS director.

Congress created the H-1B visa program in 1990 to enable U.S. employers to hire temporary, foreign workers in specialty occupations, including IT. Several federal contractors, including Microsoft Corp., have been strong supporters of the program, while some American IT workers have alleged that it dampens wages.

Initially, the number of visas was capped at 65,000 per year, but the cap has fluctuated year to year, as Congress added various stipulations. In most years, demand has exceeded the cap.

The Government Accountability Office recently recommended that Congress rethink the H-1B visa program because it might not be working effectively and might not be protecting American workers adequately.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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