US firms in race to snap up foreign visas

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Employers across the US are this weekend scrambling to apply for the limited number of visas for foreign employees amid a skills shortage that Silicon Valley bosses say threatens America's future competitiveness.

The annual quota of 85,000 visas for new skilled, temporary workers - so-called H1B visas - is expected to be filled in record time, perhaps within days, according to some estimates.

The shortage is the subject of an intensive lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill by technology companies, and last month the Microsoft founder Bill Gates told law makers to dramatically raise or even scrap the annual cap.

New visas for the fiscal year starting in October are expected to be fully allocated well before the year even begins, for the fourth time in a row, since Congress more than halved the quota in 2003. Since then, business lobbying for a reversal has been complicated by growing public complaints that foreign workers are taking American jobs.

The quota was fully allocated by August in 2005 and by May last year, and increasingly desperate employers are learning that they must apply ever earlier.

"Hitting the cap this early creates a situation in which foreign students graduating from US universities this spring are virtually shut out of the US job market," said Robert Hoffman, an executive at the software firm Oracle and co-chair of the tech industry lobby group Compete America.

Irwin Mark Jacobs, chairman of Qualcomm, the wireless technology company, said: "Our immigration system for highly educated workers is falling apart just when talented knowledge workers have more choices than ever with competing companies in Europe and Asia."

In 2004, the last year for which figures are available, Britons accounted for 5,617 of the 124,096 H1Bs issued, which included renewals of expiring visas. India accounts for the largest number of skilled temporary workers.