H-1B visas are hot again, for Philly firms too

If H-1B visas are an economic indicator, then things may be looking up.


USCIS Reaches FY 2014 H-1B Cap

— USCIS (@USCIS) April 5, 2013

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For the first time since 2008, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will conduct a lottery for H-1B visas, the agency announced Friday afternoon. That comes just days after the filing window opened on April 1.

The coveted H-1Bs are meant for foreign nationals working in specialty occupations. Think skilled workers tapped for tech jobs at U.S. firms. The visas are capped at 85,000 — 20,000 of which are designated for people with advanced degrees from U.S. universities.

Last week, Planet Money’s Zoe Chace reported that the rush was on — at a distinctly pre-recession pace — for immigration law firms working to hit the April 1-5 filing window.

That rush did not skip Philadelphia.

“It was almost like a panic,” said Jonathan Grode, an immigration lawyer at Green and Spiegel LLP and an adjunct at Temple University’s law school.

The government issued a warning in March that demand for this year’s H-1Bs would be high.

“It kind of became a self-fulfilling prophecy, in my opinion,” Grode said. “It created a flux, a rush to really start filing.”

Compared to last year, Grode says, he filed twice as many H-1B petitions on behalf of clients.

“It is really tied to the economy,” said Grode. “Tech-heavy areas like California are filing a lot more H-1Bs, but our region has a tremendous amount of employers that utilize the H-1B program.

“Whether they’re tech-based or pharmaceutical-based, a lot of the science-technology-engineering-and-math positions that they offer, the candidates they get are not unanimously foreign nationals, but a high percentage of the people that apply are.”

Grode says the majority of those applicants are already in the country, having graduated from U.S. institutions.

William Stock is a partner at Klasko, Rulon, Stock & Seltzer, LLP, an immigration law firm headquartered in Philadelphia.

He says his firm saw about a 10 percent increase in the number of H-1B petitions it processed this year compared to last.

“It means that companies are starting new projects,” Stock said. “They’re launching new products, they’re expressing confidence that the market for those services is going to be there.”

H-1B visas are not without controversy, however. Critics say H-1B workers displace American workers. Supporters say H-1Bs help fill the need for skilled labor — especially in STEM fields.

Recent analysis by IT magazine Computerworld found that offshore outsourcing firms, not companies such as Google and Microsoft are the major users of H-1B visas.

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