For the first time since 2003, a coveted visa program that feeds skilled foreigners to some of the US' top-tier technology companies and universities is on track to leave thousands of spots unfilled, a sign of how the economy has eroded employment even among highly trained professionals.
The program, known as H-1B, has been a mainstay of places such as Silicon Valley and Wall Street, where many companies have come to depend on computer programmers from India or engineers from China. Last year, even as the recession began to bite, companies snapped up the 65,000 visas available in just one day. This year, however, as of Sept. 25, more than six months after the U.S. government began accepting applications, only 46,700 petitions had been filed.
The numbers represent a sharp turnaround for a program that many companies had complained was too stingy with its visas.
The sagging economy, which has pushed U.S. unemployment to 9.8%, has crimped expansion in the technology sector, traditionally the biggest user of the H-1B program. Julie Pearl, a corporate immigration lawyer in San Francisco, said that at least a third of her clients have dropped their hiring of H-1B visa holders by 50% from a year ago. "Most companies just aren't hiring as many people in general," she said.
Other factors have also contributed. Companies that receive federal bailout funds must prove they have tried to recruit American workers at prevailing wages and that foreigners aren't replacing U.S. citizens. That regulation caused Bank of America Corp. (BAC), among others, to rescind job offers to dozens of foreigners.
Graduate-school applications from foreigners have also slowed. Foreigners' applications for 2009 admissions to universities that offer doctoral programs rose 5% from a year earlier, but foreigners' applications declined 17% at universities that offer a master's as their highest degree, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.
In addition, as the U.S. economy sags, would-be immigrants from India and China are finding new career opportunities in their own countries.