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U.S. demand for skilled worker visas seen topping quota soon

People waiting to apply for visas sit outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing May 3, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray
People waiting to apply for visas sit outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing May 3, 2011. REUTERS/David Gray

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A popular U.S. visa program for skilled workers is likely to hit its quota within days after its application period opens, triggering a lottery and signaling that companies feel confident enough about the economy to hire more foreign workers.

The H-1B program will not have reached its base cap of 65,000 so quickly since early 2008, before the economic crisis hit. That was the last time a lottery was used, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the applications.

The application period opened on Monday. The USCIS plans to announce by the middle of next week if it will hold a lottery for the visas, a spokesman told Reuters on Monday. It had previously said it anticipated the quota for the year starting October 1 could be met by Friday.

Last year the cap was not reached until June.

Preliminary paperwork that prospective visa seekers must file with the Department of Labor before applying to USCIS indicates that there is demand for well over 65,000 visas, said Jacksonville, Florida-based lawyer Ashwin Sharma, who handles H-1B visa applications for technology consulting firms. He expects a record volume of applications this year.

U.S. companies, particularly in technology, say they need the visas to fill vacant positions. But some worker-advocacy groups counter that the companies are using the visa program to hire cheaper foreign labor.

While the official quota is 65,000, the actual number of people who enter the United States on H-1Bs is far greater because workers at universities and some other workplaces don't count toward the limit. Masters and PhD graduates from U.S. universities have their own quota of 20,000 visas.

Last year, the government issued 129,000 H-1B visas - almost double level of the official quota.

The U.S. Congress is currently working on immigration reform legislation. Among proposals being considered is a revamp of the H-1B program that could raise the quota based on demand and eliminate the lottery.

(Reporting by Sarah McBride; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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