Guest Column by Christina LaBrie

On April 2, 2007, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will begin accepting petitions for H-1B temporary workers. This seemingly insignificant event has turned into the source of great anxiety for U.S. employers.

U.S. law limits the number of H-1B visas available each year to 65,000, with an additional 20,000 for individuals with advanced degrees from U.S. institutions. Since the limit was reduced in fiscal year 2004, the visas have been exhausted quickly, long before the workers can even begin employment on October 1. As the filing period for H-1Bs shrinks, the madness competition for the visas grows. This year, the USCIS has indicated that it is preparing for the possibility that the agency will receive enough petitions to reach the cap on the first day of acceptance. What results is a mad dash to the H-1B finish line, particularly for large companies that rely on foreign-born workers to fill computer and technology positions.

H-1B season has become a competitive sport for immigration attorneys. We engage in inane conversations about tricks for getting packages to the top of the pile and plan clandestine trips to remote USCIS service centers to deliver H-1B packages by hand at the stroke of midnight. Each year the USCIS throws a curve ball late in the game. Last year, it was an eleventh-hour notice that all petitions must be filed at a single service center in order to facilitate accurate counting. We scrambled to change cover letters and shipping labels. This year, an announcement was recently made that two service centers would be accepting petitions based on the location of the job. Apparently, accuracy must give way to 15 tons of paper.

When our immigration system starts to look like Toys “R” Us on the day after Thanksgiving, something is very wrong.

There is no legitimate policy reason to award visas for temporary workers in specialty occupations based on the reliability of the delivery carrier. When the H-1B filing dust settles, American companies will be left wondering why they are not given the tools to bring highly educated foreign workers to the U.S. to fill vacancies and support economic growth. Last week, Bill Gates testified before Congress in favor of removing limits on H-1B visas to increase America’s competitiveness.

Anti-immigrant sentiment dominates the current debate and few politicians are willing to support programs that permit the entry of greater numbers of foreign nationals. Restrictionists argue that H-1B temporary workers displace U.S. workers and drive down wages. These claims ignore two important facts: H-1B workers must be paid the “prevailing wage” as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor and along with each H-1B petition, employers are required to pay $1,500 for training programs for U.S. workers. U.S. companies would be happy to hire qualified U.S. workers, avoiding H-1B madness and expense, but as Gates explained, there simply are not enough available.

It is possible to improve the H-1B system without opening the immigration floodgates. The annual cap could be designed to respond to demand – increasing each year if the previous year’s visas were used up – rather than setting arbitrary numerical limits. A responsive system would allow the U.S. to retain foreign nationals trained in U.S. schools and would encourage economic growth. On the other hand, incremental increases would allay fears of too many foreign nationals entering the work force at one time.

Until Congress addresses the failing H-1B system, businesses will be left to fight each other every year for the highly-coveted H-1B visas. Immigration lawyers will work long hours during this short season and courier services will reap the rewards of one very busy day. On April 2, if demand exceeds the supply of visas, the USCIS will select petitions by random lottery. Our country needs a thoughtful, realistic approach to immigration, not a one-day temporary worker lottery.