The Immigration and Naturalization Service said Friday the 1998 allotment of visas for high-skilled foreigners is already exhausted and it will stop accepting new applications.
The visas in the H-1B program go to jobs such as computer programmers, health professionals and college professors.The INS said it has already given out the 65,000 visas allowed. Last year, the first time the entire allocation was used, the ceiling wasn't hit until September.
Under the procedures outlined by INS, the freeze on new applications would last until Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
Congress is moving swiftly, however, to pass legislation that would raise the ceiling for the remainder of this year and the next several years - meaning the moratorium on new petitions is likely to be short-lived.
Microsoft, Intel Corp., Netscape and others in the information-technology sector have been lobbying Congress to expand the H-1B program, arguing that a shortage of high-skilled talent could dampen their industry's explosive growth.
"Employers will start feeling the effects of reaching the H-1B visa cap immediately," a business trade coalition, American Business for Legal Immigration, said in a statement Friday. "Putting projects on hold and reducing levels of research and development will threaten America's high-tech leadership position."
But the Clinton administration and organized labor are leery of expanding the program, arguing that an inflow of foreign talent could keep Americans out of good-paying jobs. The Labor Department contends the first solution should be to improve training and educational opportunities for Americans.
The Senate next week will consider a bill by Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., chairman of the Senate Judiciary immigration subcommittee, that would add 30,000 visas this year and raise the ceiling to a maximum 115,000 in each of the next four years.