Monday, July 16, 2007

How many H-1B workers? Counts vary... Things good to know...

Source: San Jose Mercury News
Date: 7/16/2007

Turns out there's one thing folks on all sides of the often heated
debate over H-1B visas can agree:

There's a startling lack of publicly available data about the
program, which makes it almost impossible to know which companies are
getting the controversial visas and why. And much of the data that
does exist is disputed by one side or another.

A list of the top 200 employers of H-1B visa holders for 2006
compiled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and obtained by
the Mercury News illustrates the problem. Of the dozen or so Silicon
Valley companies on the list, Oracle ranked highest at No. 9. Cisco
Systems was 13 and Intel was 14.

According to the list, Oracle was issued 1,022 H-1B visas in calendar
year 2006, a figure that includes renewals of previously issued
visas. But Robert Hoffman, an Oracle spokesman, said his company
could only confirm that it made 170 new H-1B hires in the federal
government's fiscal year 2007, which runs from October to September.

However, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Oracle
applied for 737 visas in 2006, up from 264 in 2005 but down from
1,627 in 2004. Hoffman, however, called those numbers "highly
inaccurate."

"There's no good data," said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the
American Council on International Personnel, an industry trade
group. "We know demand well exceeds supply, but we don't really know
what the demand is."

The confusion over the numbers highlights the incredibly complex
nature of the H-1B program, which involves three federal agencies.
And the lack of real, fundamental data about who is using these
controversial visas and for which jobs has frustrated folks on all
sides of the debate.

"I think that's pretty indicative of the oversight of this program,"
said Sonia Ramirez, legislative representative for the AFL-
CIO. "There are a number of agencies with responsibility. And in some
cases, they don't know how many visas they've issued. And in the end,
that weakens the enforcement of the program and protection for
workers."

High-tech companies have been lobbying for years to raise the cap on
the 65,000 H-1B visas issued every year. Critics who oppose an
expansion argue that the visas take high-paying jobs from Americans
and give them to lower-paid immigrants.

The comprehensive immigration bill that was recently defeated in
Congress would have almost doubled the number of H-1B visas to
115,000 a year, exempting 40,000 people with higher degrees from any
restrictions. It also would have accelerated the employer-based green-
card system for workers already here, a provision that tech companies
favor because it allows them to move current, temporary workers to
permanent status and free up H-1B visas for other workers.

How steep is the demand for those additional visas? Here is what is
known:

The federal government awarded 124,096 H-1B visas in the fiscal year
ending October 2005, the most recent annual totals available. That
includes renewed visas, which don't count against the annual cap. It
doesn't include the 20,312 applications the government turned down.

Companies filed 119,193 applications for the 65,000 visas that will
be awarded for the fiscal year starting in October 2007.

There were so many applications that, after two days in April, the
government cut them off. It continued to take applications for the
20,000 visa exemptions for people with master's degrees until April
30.

Reaching the cap so quickly only further antagonized tech companies.

"I think one of the frustrations we have about the government running
out of H-1Bs in April is that you have an entire graduation class
that's not even eligible," Hoffman said.

Despite the demand, it's hard to know who gets the visas and how they
are used.

Complicated process

In part, that's because of the byzantine process for applying and
granting the visas. A company that wants H-1B visas files an
application with the U.S. Department of Labor. The Labor Department
screens the applications, then passes them to the Department of
Homeland Security, which includes the office of U.S. Citizenship and
Immigration Services. Applications approved by the immigration
service are then forwarded to the U.S. Department of State, which
actually issues the visas.

So who wants these visas? And how badly? To answer that question, the
Mercury News first examined a series of databases on the Labor
Department's Web site.

Looking at one company, Cisco Systems of San Jose, the data showed
the number of H-1B applications filed by Cisco rose from 481 in 2004
to 1,027 in 2005 to 2,283 in 2006. When asked about those numbers,
company spokeswoman Robyn Jenkins would neither confirm or deny them.

"There is currently a shortage of technically skilled workers in the
U.S., and as Cisco hiring overall has increased in recent years, so
has our use of H-1Bs to fill certain highly specialized positions,"
Jenkins wrote in an e-mail.

But Shotwell, the tech-industry lobbyist, said such tallies are
misleading because companies often file multiple applications for a
single person or large blanket applications for a number of positions
they might not ultimately need because they want as many as possible
before the cap is reached.

Still, the applications do show the types of jobs companies hope to
fill. At the low end, Cisco wanted a visa for a customer support
engineer position that would pay at least $46,900 annually. At the
high end, Cisco wanted a visa for a director of manufacturing that
would pay from $166,566 to $212,300.

Visa lottery

To get a clearer picture of the H-1B numbers, a Labor Department
spokesman recommended contacting the Homeland Security Department,
where the immigration service conducts a lottery to award the visas.

Initially, a Homeland Security spokeswoman said the department
doesn't release figures on the number of visas awarded to individual
companies.

"I don't believe we compile that information," said spokeswoman
Sharon Rummery. "And it may be that we don't have any operational use
for that."

A short time later, Rummery found a list of the top 20 employers
receiving H-1B visas in 2006. The list is dominated by India-based
outsourcing companies, such as Wipro and Infosys, which at No. 1 and
No. 2 respectively received 3,143 and 3,125 new visas. The only
Silicon Valley company on the list was Intel, ranked No. 13 with 613.
Microsoft was fifth with 1,297.

But another list circulating on Capitol Hill told a somewhat
different story. That list was also from the Homeland Security
Department and included the number of new visas as well as the number
of renewal visas.

According to that list, Oracle outranked Intel, receiving 1,022 visas
in 2006. Intel received 828, as did Cisco; Yahoo received 347; and
Hewlett-Packard received 333.

HP spokeswoman Pamela Bonney couldn't offer any guidance on the
accuracy of the numbers.

"HP does not track visa applications filed on an annual basis," she
wrote in an e-mail. "I can confirm that the employees that have H-1B
visas are less than 2 percent of HP's total U.S. employee population."

Last stop: the State Department. A spokeswoman said the department
doesn't disclose detailed numbers regarding H-1B visas.