WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. immigration agency stopped taking H-1B visa applications for highly skilled foreign workers after just one week and will hold a lottery to award them, the government said on Tuesday.
Congress limits the annual number of H-1B visas to 65,000. The cap has been criticized by Microsoft Corp and other computer, technology and engineering companies that say they must hire foreign workers because the United States is not producing enough home-grown job candidates.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said the lottery would include H-1B visa applications received through April 7, just one week after the application window opened for fiscal 2009. The fiscal year begins on October 1.
“Due to the high number of petitions, USCIS is not yet able to announce the precise day on which it will conduct the random selection process,” the agency said in a statement.
A USCIS spokesman said he did not know how many H-1B applications were submitted through April 7.
The agency held a lottery last year after being overwhelmed with about 120,000 H-1B visa requests on the first day the application period began. For the past five years, the H-1B visa cap has been exceeded before the new fiscal year began.
An H-1B visa allows a U.S. company to employ a foreign guest worker with a university degree in a highly-specialized job for three years. The visa can be extended for another three years.
The immigration agency said it will first hold a computer lottery for a separate category of 20,000 H-1B visas allotted to applicants holding advanced university degrees.
Applicants from that group who are not chosen will be included in a second computer lottery for the broader group of H-1B applicants competing for 65,000 visas, USCIS said.
The Securities Industry and Financial markets Association is among several U.S. business groups calling for Congress to lift the limit on H-1B visas.
Reporting by Julie Vorman; Editing by Andre Grenon