H-1B visa use by U.S. firms holds steady in '09

U.S. companies were still getting H-1B visa petitions even as they cut jobs, according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) that shows who received the visas in the 2009 fiscal year.

A couple of trends are immediately apparent.

First, some of the big India IT services cut back on their H-1B use during the softening job market. For instance, Infosys Technologies Ltd. received only 440 visas in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2008 and ended on Sept. 30, 2009. In the prior fiscal year, it received more than 10 times that number, or 4,559. And while Wipro Ltd. led the FY09 list with 1,964 visas, that number is still down more than 25% from the 2,678 visas it got the year before.

Secondly, U.S. firms, despite cutbacks in their own staffs and an overall decline in IT employment, continued to hire people using H-1B visas. That list includes Microsoft, Intel and IBM's India operation.

The U.S. can issue 85,000 visas in the current 2010 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1; only 2,500 remain available. In the last several years, the pool of available visas has been exhausted within days of the April 1 filing period.

Even so, the economic slowdown has not dampened efforts by tech firms to get H-1B visa limits raised, if not removed all together. Congress is expected to take up comprehensive immigration reform next year, a move likely to focus renewed attention on H-1B visa restrictions.

The issue came up obliquely earlier this month at a White House " jobs summit " attended mostly by business leaders, labor officials and economists. Just before that summit, the CEOs of more than 50 companies, many of them tech firms, sent out a letter calling for fewer restrictions on hiring of foreign workers.

Among those signing the letter were top officials of Advanced Micro Devices, Intel, Oracle, Microsoft, EMC, Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Inc. and Texas Instruments.

"For the United States to remain a world leader in innovation," the letter said in part, "we need to increase America's domestic pipeline of highly skilled workers, while also attracting and retaining the world's best and brightest workers."

That point was later echoed by Obama at the summit when he said that "one of the great things about this country is we get the best and the brightest talent to study here, and once they study here they start enjoying the intellectual freedom and the entrepreneurship, they decide to stay, and they start new businesses."

The list of H-1B visas approved by the USCIS for FY09 is available here. (And here'sthe full list from 2008 .)

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