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Booming demand for skilled worker visas brings frustrating lottery

Immigration caps reached within a week

SALT LAKE CITY — On the one hand, brisk demand for special visas for international workers suggests the U.S. economy is on the rebound.

But antiquated caps on the visa program also stand to hinder the growth of the nation's high technology and medical technology segments, says Salt Lake immigration attorney Tim Wheelwright.

On Monday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officials announced it had reached the statutory cap of 65,000 H-1B visas for the 2014 fiscal year within the first week of the filing period, which began April 1.

H-1B visas enable U.S. employers to hire foreign nationals to work long-term in the United States. Across the country, employers use H-1B visas to hire skilled engineers or to keep top international students graduating from American universities from taking their talents elsewhere.

Now that petitions for the H-1B visas have exceeded caps for that program, as well as an exemption that allows for another 20,000 visas for people with advanced university degrees, the immigration service will conduct a computer-generated lottery among petitioners that met application deadlines.

The agency received more than 124,000 petitions for the combined 85,000 H-1B visas available, the agency said in a press release Monday. This was the first time since 2008 that that statutory cap was reached within the first week of the filing period, immigration officials said.

Wheelwright said the outdated caps do not reflect the needs of the high-tech industry, which needs workers from throughout the world who are well-educated and have special skills.

"This is a perfect example this immigration system is broken and how it needs to be fixed," he said.

Clients hire immigration attorneys to "solve problems," Wheelwright said. He said it is frustrating to tell these employers that in spite of meeting filing deadlines for the visas program, the visas will be subject to a random lottery.

"We have no idea when they'll be selected, even if they'll be selected. The clients look at you and say 'You've got to be kidding. How can this even be possible?' Yet, this is the system we have. As a professional who has been doing this for 16 years, it's extremely frustrating. But that's the reality we're dealing with," he said.

The announcement by the immigration agency comes as Congress is developing proposals for widespread reforms of the nation's immigration policy. One proposal by the bipartisan "gang of eight" senators working on comprehensive immigration reform, suggests raising the cap on H-1B visas to 115,000 a year.

It remains to be seen whether a sufficient number of senators will sign on to the reforms developed by the bipartisan group but Wheelwright said he takes it as a positive sign that the parties are still at the table.

"There's a lot that needs to be worked out. I'm trying to remain cautiously optimistic but I also know it's a very heavy lift," he said.

Meanwhile, other senators including Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, have introduced their own legislative proposals to address reforms of the nation's immigration system.

Hatch, along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Democratic Sens. Chris Coon of Delaware and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have introduced the Immigration Innovation Act of 2013 to reform immigration laws with respect to high-skilled workers.

"This bill is a common sense approach to ensuring that those who have come here to be educated in high-tech fields have the ability to stay here with their families and contribute to the economy and our society," Hatch said in a press release.

“It's a market-driven path forward to fulfilling a need in our immigration system and growing the economy. It's good for workers, good for businesses trying to grow, and good for our economy."

If comprehensive immigration reforms stall, the Senate is expected to move forward with smaller proposals that address specific problems, such as the inadequate statutory caps on H-B1 visas, Wheelwright said.

"I predict if there's a breakdown in the discussions over comprehensive reform, they'll probably move quickly to deal with some of these other issues."