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Visa lottery

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If Congress needs any reminder about the urgency of immigration reform, it is the start of the annual race for one of the limited number of H-1B visas for highly skilled workers.

Employers started submitting applications Monday for one of the 65,000 visas for foreign workers in fields such as science, engineering and computer programming, and the race could be over by Friday. The Citizenship and Immigration Services expects the number of applications to reach the cap by the end of the week as the economic recovery spurs demand for workers to fill jobs starting Oct. 1.

“It will be a frenzy, because the cap ... is nowhere near high enough to meet demand,” said Robert Holleyman president and CEO of the Software Alliance, a trade group for technology companies.

The last time the limit was reached so quickly was in 2008. Last year, it took 10 weeks to hit the cap and 33 weeks the year before that. But the winners won’t be known for a while. The application period and waiting to hear from Citizenship and Immigration Services create months of uncertainly and make planning difficult for employers, who can spend thousands of dollars on applications. Many companies have been waiting since last year for the application process to open up.

In addition, the program also allows for 20,000 visas to foreign nationals who graduate with advanced degrees from U.S. universities, many of whom have to return to their native land rather than put their education and skills to work here.

Businesses have been lobbying Congress for years to increase the allocation of H-1B visas to meet demands. However, they have met been blocked by critics who say companies misuse the program to hire low-paid foreign workers at the expense of qualified Americans. Businesses deny that.

Lisa Malloy, an Intel Corp. spokeswoman, said increasing visas will not displace U.S. workers since they “hire individuals on a visa when there is an identified skill shortage.”

But it is not just high-tech companies needing the workers. Doug Oberhelman, chief executive of Caterpillar Inc., told the Wall Street Journal that they also “have gaps in our work force” Some workers trained by his company have had to leave the United States after their visas expire, taking their skills and experience gained with Caterpillar — or another American company — to a foreign competitor.

Legislation to both limit and increase the number of H-1B visas has been introduced in Congress. It is also part of a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws being developed by a bipartisan group of eight senators, although most of the focus in recent weeks has been on visas for low-skilled workers.

The agreement reportedly includes increasing the number of H-1B visas, which has to be accompanied by measures to protect against fraud and abuse while also ensuring American workers are protected.

The final legislation has yet to be drafted, but congressional action this year could put an end to the annual frenzy.

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