By Sarah McBride
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. visa program ran a lottery on Sunday to award 85,000 slots for high-skilled workers just one week after the application period opened, the Citizenship and Immigration Service said, signaling companies feel confident enough about the economy to hire more foreign workers.
The USCIS held the lottery to approve petitions for the slots after it received approximately 124,000 H-1B petitions last week, including petitions filed for holders of advanced degrees from U.S. universities. The USCIS started accepting petitions for the visas just a week ago, on April 1 and stopped accepting them five days later because of high demand.
The last time the USCIS used a lottery this quickly to grant H-1B visas, a type companies must initiate, was in 2008, before the economic crisis hit. In April that year, when unemployment was around 5 percent, it received 163,000 petitions in five days.
Now the economy seems to be improving, with the unemployment rate nudging down to 7.6 percent last month according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as wages edge up.
The cap includes 65,000 high-skilled workers, plus a separate H-1B allocation of 20,000 masters and PhD graduates from U.S. universities. The actual granting of visas is made by the State Department, the final step for any H-1B applicant.
Petitioners are being notified by U.S. mail if they have won a slot, USCIS said. Those who have not will receive their petitions in the mail, along with their refunded filing fees.
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.
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 higher because workers at universities and some other workplaces do not count toward the limit. The USCIS is still accepting petitions for those exempted categories of worker, it said.
Last year, the government issued 129,000 H-1B visas. Indian nationals received the largest number.
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; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)