The Homeland Security Department expects applications for high-skilled immigration visas to outpace the available supply in a matter of days, one of the fastest runs on the much-sought-after work permits in years and a sign of continued economic recovery amid new hiring by U.S. technology companies.
The urgent race for such visas — highly desired by Microsoft, Apple, Google and other leading technology companies — coincides with congressional plans to increase the number available to tech-savvy foreigners. It's likely to trigger a lottery, for the first time since 2008, before the economic crisis hit.
The H-1B program will not have reached its base cap of 65,000 so quickly since early that year, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the applications.
The application period opened on Monday. The USCIS plans to announce by the middle of next week if it will hold a lottery for the visas, a spokesman told Reuters on Monday. It had previously said it anticipated the quota for the year starting October 1 could be met by Friday.
Last year the cap was not reached until June.
Preliminary paperwork that prospective visa seekers must file with the Department of Labor before applying to USCIS indicates that there is demand for well over 65,000 visas, said Jacksonville, Florida-based lawyer Ashwin Sharma, who handles H-1B visa applications for technology consulting firms. He expects a record volume of applications this year.
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.
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 don't count toward the limit. Masters and PhD graduates from U.S. universities have their own quota of 20,000 visas.
Last year, the government issued 129,000 H-1B visas - almost double level of the official quota.
The U.S. Congress is currently working on immigration reform legislation. Among proposals being considered is a revamp of the H-1B program that could raise the quota based on demand and eliminate the lottery.
Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Christopher Bentley said the agency won't know for certain whether a lottery is necessary until next week.
"We just won't know until we answer the mail each day," Bentley said.
The agency warned businesses about the anticipated crush of applications last month.
Even if applications don't exceed the availability this week, immigration attorneys and other experts predicted they would be snatched up faster than in recent years. It took 10 weeks to hit the cap in the 2013 budget year that began last October and more than 33 weeks to dole out all the available visas the year before.
A growing economy is contributing to the rush this year, but the scramble is also a sign that demand for the visas exceeds the available supply. Proposals to increase the number of available visas have been supported by lawmakers and political candidates in recent years and are now considered a key part of immigration reform plans in Congress.
"Our current immigration laws do not prioritize immigrants based on the skills and education they bring to our country," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He said the U.S. selects only about 12 percent of legal immigrants on the basis of their special skills.
Improving the system for foreign workers has been a sticking point among lawmakers. In November, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill to make green cards available to foreign students graduating from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science and math while eliminating the government's Diversity Visa Lottery Program. That program randomly awards 55,000 visas to immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. Democrats have largely supported the diversity lottery, and the bill was blocked in the Senate.
The rush for these visas will be another signal to Congress that an overhaul of the program is needed as part of a broader immigration plan, said Neil Ruiz, an associate fellow at the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program.
"Once Congress comes back next week," Ruiz said, "they will say, 'Ah-ha, we need this and we need to do this now.'"
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.