H-1B counting snafu may slash '00 quota  

By: Kim S. Nash
Source: ComputerWorld; October, 1999

Software glitches and possibly human error at the Immigration and Naturalization Service caused the agency to grant 10,000 to 20,000 too many H-1B visas for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, the INS confirmed this week.

The mistake leaves some workers in limbo and has reignited tempers among politicians and companies already fighting about whether and how to limit the coveted visas for overseas workers at a time when U.S. technology talent is in short supply.

The visas let people from other countries come to the U.S. for specific -- usually high-tech -- jobs. The U.S. Congress has capped H-1B visas at 115,000 for fiscal 2000. By issuing too many in fiscal '99, the INS could cut into 2000's quota. Or, about 10,000 to 20,000 visa holders could be told to stop work and go home.

"We're working with [Congress] on a compromise on what to do with those excess H-1Bs," an INS spokeswoman said. "We're not quite sure what could happen with them."

In the past, when the number of visa petitions has exceeded the number of open spots, the INS has OK'd them but applied them to the following year's count. In 1998, for example, more than 19,000 people were approved after the existing cap of 65,000 was reached. Those 19,000 were then applied to 1999's cap.

But mistakenly granting an extra 10,000 or 20,000 applications is different, observers said.

"This is one of the biggest hairy mistakes I've ever seen," said Carl Shusterman, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles. "If they count them toward [fiscal 2000's] quota, then things are going to be more dire this year than we thought they were."

The INS first suspected the problem in June and worked through the summer to confirm it, the INS spokeswoman said. The agency suspects faulty software caused approved petitions to "disappear" and to miscount revoked visas, she said. The INS uses a proprietary mainframe system called Claims and is in the process of upgrading a version that's four to five years old, she said. The upgrade isn't the culprit, she said, because errors were discovered in offices running the old software.

The agency is looking for an outside auditor to investigate, she added.

This week, the agency met with Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who are on committees that oversee the INS, to decide on the next steps, she said. No decision had been reached at press time.

Abraham's office wouldn't confirm the meeting, but the senator sent a stern letter to the INS questioning whether it can borrow against visas for 2000.

The recently uncovered glitches mean companies looking overseas for technical workers will likely have far fewer chances to hire this year.

"If they made a mistake and punish companies for it this year, that will generate heat," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an industry trade group in Arlington, Va. The INS should grant the full complement of 115,000 new H-1B visas and not deduct its 1999 error from 2000's limit, he said.

 
Year Cap When Cap Was Hit Approved applications applied to following year's cap
1998 65,000 May 11, 1998 19,431
1999 115,000 Aug. 14, 1999 10,000*

*Source: INS, Washington, D.C.