Immigration officials brace for wave of H-1B visa applications

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Monday marks the opening of the application process for high-skilled foreign workers hoping to land a 2018 H-1B work visa. The work permit can mean six years of employment in the U.S. for those lucky enough to get one. 

Last year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stopped accepting applications five days into the process after receiving more than 230,000 applications for the 65,000 available visas. 

The first phase is a lottery; those who make it through then undergo a security check.

Unlike in previous years, the agency will not allow applicants to pay extra to have their applications expedited quickly through a system known  as "premium processing." The Trump administration has temporarily suspended the practice to speed up the overall process, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

The agency said the suspension will allow it to deal with "long-pending petitions, which we have currently been unable to process due to the high volume of incoming petitions and the significant surge in premium processing requests over the past few years." It said the move will also allow it to "prioritize adjudication of H-1B extension of status cases that are nearing the 240 day mark."

Franklin Nelson, a Los Angeles immigration attorney who specializes in H-1B visas, said he expects his clients to hear back from the government beginning in July. The lucky ones who receive an H1B visa can begin work on Oct. 1.

Nelson's clients include Southern California companies and foreign workers seeking the visa because they have job offers from local firms. He said many ask him how President Trump's tough immigration stance might affect their chances.

"A very common question that I get regarding any new cases coming into my office is, 'Is my case harder to do now because the current administration is being so restrictive regarding immigration?'" he said. "Those questions get asked of me all the time. And the answer is, sometimes yes and sometimes no."

Nelson said people from the six countries in Trump's latest travel ban could have their applications delayed, even though the courts have temporarily put the ban on hold.

"It's not guaranteed that they will be, but the administration has made it very clear that they intend to at least try to put some applicants through some additional checks, and additional checks mean additional time," he said.  

Citizenship and Immigration Services doesn't publish a breakdown of where H-1B visa holders go to work, but data from the U.S. Labor Department shows that the demand for these workers is greatest in California. In 2015, California employers filed requests for 217,456 H1B positions, many of which went unfilled because of the government cap.

The bulk of California's H-1B employment appears to be in Silicon Valley, where the need for skilled tech and engineering workers is greatest.

Nelson said here in Southern California, the need is spread over a broader cross section of businesses, including tech, financial services and engineering.