Lottery for visas leaves US companies in limbo

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American business leaders slammed the US system of awarding visas to foreign workers, as employers across the country scramble to prepare applications for a federal lottery.

The 85,000 quota of visas for skilled, temporary workers is expected to be reached within days of the application process being opened on Tuesday. Since Congress halved the quota in 2003, businesses have found that they must apply earlier and earlier in the year. Because the visas are expected to be oversubscribed within the first five days, for the second year in a row, all applications will be entered in a random draw.

"It's no way to run a business," said Robert Hoffman, head of government affairs at the technology company Oracle, who also heads a lobby group fighting to raise the cap on so-called H1B visas. "For the second consecutive year, US companies and research institutions will be forced to put plans on hold as they wait for a lottery to determine who gets to hire the scientists and engineers they need."

Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, and a slew of other Silicon Valley bosses have been arguing for Congress to increase or even scrap the quota, saying it contributes to a skills shortage that is harming US businesses and driving talented foreigners into the arms of overseas competitors.

This week, Compete America, the lobby group, is sending members of Congress a scratchcard, symbolising its frustration that the US visa system has become a lottery.