IG: Better controls needed for temporary worker visa program

The Citizenship and Immigration Services agency exceeded the statutory limit on H-1B visas it issued in fiscal 2005, and lacks the technology and business practices to stay within the congressionally mandated 65,000 visa cap, according to a new report from Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

"CIS had neither the technology nor an operational methodology to ensure compliance with the precise statutory ceiling," the report said. Faced with those handicaps, the agency granted 71,740 H-1B visas in fiscal 2005, which was 6,740 more than the limit set by Congress.

While the inspector general called for more precise counts and a single centralized processing center for the H-1B petitions in the future, CIS officials cautioned that those changes likely would slow down the granting of the petitions and would put the program at greater risk of computer failure.

The H-1B visa program is one of several temporary worker, nonimmigrant visa programs. It allows U.S. defense companies to employ specially skilled foreign workers for military projects, among other objectives.

The Immigration and Nationality Act sets the limit on the number of people that may be granted H-1B status per year at 65,000, and establishes certain types of H-1B petitions as exceptions to the cap.

The business processes used by CIS to count the cap cases are "stunningly unwieldy" and virtually guarantee imprecision, the inspector general wrote. The agency monitors its workload of incoming petitions, and sets a cutoff date after which it will no longer accept petitions, in an effort to stay within the cap.

However, the agency also seeks to avoid negative repercussions on businesses if the full 65,000 H-1B visas are not approved. "CIS today continues to believe that any shortfall in petition approvals that would result from an overcounting of cap cases would be a disservice to the American business community," the report said.

The inspector general recommended that CIS improve its cap counting to make it precise, and to put cases that exceed the cap on a waiting list.

But CIS managers, in their response to the report, warned that correcting the problems is likely to slow down the granting of the H-1B petitions. "CIS expresses concern for the would-be employers of H-1B beneficiaries if it were to approve petitions slowly to ensure no over-issuance," according to the report's management comments section.

The inspector general, in a rebuttal, disputed the idea that employers would be inconvenienced. "In our opinion the processing of H-1B petitions is not inherently time-sensitive," Skinner wrote in his recommendations.

Skinner also advised consolidating to a single central processing center for the H-1B visas, rather than usisng four as is currently the case. But CIS officials said it would put the system at greater risk of "a single point of failure" from a major computer breakdown.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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