U.S. visa program for skilled workers hits limit

A popular U.S. visa program for skilled workers has hit its quota just days into the application period, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service said, triggering a lottery and signaling that companies feel confident enough about the economy to hire more foreign workers.

The H-1B program has not 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 USCIS.

A separate H-1B allocation for masters and PhD graduates from U.S. universities has also hit its quota of 20,000 visas, USCIS said.

After Friday, the USCIS will no longer accept applications subject to quotas.

The H-1B is a nonimmigrant visa in the United States that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. The duration of stay is three years, extendable to six years.

The USCIS is allowed to authorize 65,000 visas this year under the H-1B program. The lottery will determine who gets those visas.

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.

USCIS will bundle the applications received through Friday into two lotteries. The lottery for 20,000 advanced-degree holders will be held first, and then any of those applications not selected will be fed into the wider lottery for the 65,000 limit.

The agency said it could not yet specify a date for the lotteries due to the large number of applications received.

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 do not count toward the limit.

Last year, the government issued 129,000 H-1B visas.

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

(Reporting by Sarah McBride in Washington; editing by Matthew Lewis)