The biggest surge in five years of applicants for America's temporary H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers began this week just as U.S. senators are finishing work on an immigration overhaul that could reshape the high technology workforce.
Thousands of visa applications submitted over the weekend arrived at U.S. immigration agency offices on Monday, the first day of the year that companies can sponsor foreign workers for a 3-year stay.
U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services expects that for the first time since 2008 it might have to run a random lottery to award the 85,000 visas available each year. And tech heavyweights said the demand shows why Congress must increase the number of those visas in upcoming legislation.
Around the world, applicants were nervously anticipating their chances of winning permission to work here beginning in October.
With a job offer from Google, James Smith was among thousands of foreign students and professional workers who have a cubicle waiting in a U.S. workplace if they can win the competition for visas.
"Fingers crossed," tweeted Smith, a doctoral student in computer science at Scotland's University of St Andrews, after his application was filed Friday.
Immigration officials did not reveal Monday how many applications they had received, but said in March that based on feedback from stakeholders, they expected enough by the end of this week to hit the cap.
The flood of applicants is partly a signal of an improving tech economy, one expert said.
"Demand for H-1Bs reflects economic and political conditions," said researcher Neil Ruiz of the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington, D.C. "The only times it declined were in the dot-com bubble, Sept. 11 and the Great Recession."
The surge also shows Silicon Valley's high demand for foreign workers and could influence members of Congress who are in final talks on a comprehensive immigration bill that will determine the future of high-skilled immigration.
Some lawmakers have proposed doubling or tripling the annual visa allotments, citing industry needs.
"When we can't find enough qualified U.S. workers, we have to look for foreign-born workers to fill those slots," said Intel spokesman Peter Muller.
The spike in demand "shows there really aren't enough H-1B visas to go around," he said. "We think it's important to raise the cap."
But U.S. engineers and some lawmakers in both parties say the program needs a makeover, not an expansion.
Too many of the biggest users of H-1B visas are hurting U.S. engineers by underpaying the foreign workers they sponsor, said U.S. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, a leading negotiator for a bipartisan immigration bill in the House.
The current regulations allow companies to pay their temporary foreign workers wages that are "way lower than what the American sitting next to them in the workplace is being paid," Lofgren said.
Lofgren also wants to curb "massive H-1B hiring and offshoring" that allows overseas IT consulting companies that dominate the program to "underbid on jobs here, underpay their employees and then, after working on the technology," take the workers and the technical knowledge back to the home country and company.
Lofgren would prefer to offer additional permanent residency visas, known as green cards.
"The H-1B program serves a function, but needs reform," she said. "If there is a demonstrated need for talent to come to America from outside the United States, we are way better off if that talent comes as permanent residents."
A bipartisan group of eight senators is preparing to unveil a comprehensive immigration bill next week, and the House could follow with its own version later in the month, but lawmakers have not revealed how those bills will address the H-1B visas.
Intel's Muller said he expects a Senate bill will expand the number of H-1B visas, though probably not as much as companies have asked for, while adding stricter regulations demanded by labor groups.
"It's a little harder to know where the House wants to be on this," Muller said.
Although Lofgren said she would prefer to fix, not expand, the H-1B program, she declined to say if she and other members of the House have reached a consensus.
This year's high demand reflects not just a brighter tech economy, but also a federal crackdown on another temporary visa for executives and managers in foreign branches of U.S.-based companies, said Ruiz of the Brookings Institution.
Recent federal scrutiny of that program is pushing more midlevel professional workers to apply instead for the H-1B, adding to the competition, he said.