(Adds comments from immigration lawyer, applicant)
By Karey Wutkowski
WASHINGTON, April 1 (Reuters) - U.S. technology and other companies flooded the government on Tuesday with an estimated 200,000 visa applications for highly skilled foreign workers in what has become an annual lottery for just 65,000 visas.
The competition is for so-called H-1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to employ foreign guest workers in highly specialized jobs for three years. The visas can be extended for an additional three years.
The U.S. government last year was overwhelmed with about 120,000 applications on the first day that applications were accepted for H-1B visas, leaving many job candidates out of luck.
One of those applicants left out in the cold last year was Sven, a German national working as a civil engineer in San Diego. Sven, who asked for his last name to be withheld due to privacy concerns, will try his luck again at the H-1B visa lottery this year but he understands that the odds are long.
“It would be like the hitting the jackpot,” said the 33-year-old, who studied at a German university for eight years to get a civil engineering degree. “When I found out how many people applied in two days last year, I was shocked.”
The company he works for has supported his efforts, paying attorney’s fees and providing information to the government. Sven is frustrated, however, that the decision about whether he works in America or not comes is determined by luck.
This year, the odds of getting an H-1B visa could be even slimmer.
Experts said they expected about 200,000 applications on Tuesday, the first day U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) begins accepting the visa petitions for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, 2008.
“The people we’ve offered jobs to are really subject to the whims of a lottery,” said Jack Krumholtz, managing director of federal government affairs for Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O).
Last year, the USCIS closed the application window after two days and pooled the petitions, granting the visas by a computerized lottery system. The agency said the applicants got the same shot at getting selected.
But tech companies say the huge demand for the visas shows the need for the industry to tap into foreign resources.
“This leaves Cisco and other U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage if we cannot access the best and the brightest workers,” said Heather Dickinson, a spokeswoman for network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO.O).
Companies who specialize in science, technology, engineering and technology fields say the current system is a Catch 22: the United States is not producing enough homegrown job candidates and won’t let companies bring them in, either.
“Getting this right is important for the U.S. to maintain competitiveness,” Krumholtz said. “It goes to our economic well-being.”
Jacob Sapochnick, a San Diego immigration lawyer, said he’s submitting about 150 applications this year on behalf of employers and workers in the high tech, scientific and marketing fields, and even one for an executive chef.
Last year, Sapochnick submitted about 200 applications and about half were granted visas. This year the situation is even more unknown, he said, because the USCIS has said it won’t close the application window for five business days.
He said he expects about 300,000 applications to be submitted over the five days.
“It’s almost like a bad joke,” Sapochnick said.
The National Association of Manufacturers called for “a permanent fix” to address the need for highly skilled employees in manufacturing and other sectors.
There wasn’t always such a mismatch in supply and demand. In 2000, the quota for H-1B visas was raised to 195,000 per year and was rarely reached, but as the tech boom faded, the quota was reduced to 65,000.
Tech companies have lobbied Congress to raise the quota but labor groups oppose a change, arguing that doing so would hurt U.S. employees’ job prospects.
Krumholtz said roughly one-third of Microsoft’s U.S.-based employees have required some form of visa assistance. Last year, Microsoft submitted about 1,200 applications for H-1B visas and was granted about 900, he said.
This year, Microsoft is trying to improve its chances in the lottery by filing about 1,600 applications. “We’ve got between 3,000 and 4,000 core openings at Microsoft we’re trying to find people for,” Krumholtz said.
But he said the company’s internal immigration staff expects it will “at best” get about 40 percent, or 640 visas, approved.
Bob Gaynor, a Boston-based attorney who specializes in immigration law, said his clients applying for H-1B visas this year are worried about their chances in the computer selection process.
Gaynor, who represents dentists, intellectual property experts, engineers and accountants from India, Australia and Germany, among other countries, said he expected about 200,000 applications to flood the system on Tuesday.
“It’s sad,” Gaynor said. “These people really contribute to the business climate of the country.” (Additional reporting by Ritsuko Ando in New York; Editing by Gary Hill) (Reuters Messaging: email@example.com; E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org +1 202 898 8399))