How many H-1B visa workers? Counts vary
By Chris O'Brien
Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News
Article Launched:07/15/2007 01:48:13 AM PDT

Turns out there's one thing folks on all sides of the often heated debate over H-1B visas can agree:

There's a startling lack of publicly available data about the program, which makes it almost impossible to know which companies are getting the controversial visas and why. And much of the data that does exist is disputed by one side or another.

A list of the top 200 employers of H-1B visa holders for 2006 compiled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and obtained by the Mercury News illustrates the problem. Of the dozen or so Silicon Valley companies on the list, Oracle ranked highest at No. 9. Cisco Systems was 13 and Intel was 14.

According to the list, Oracle was issued 1,022 H-1B visas in calendar year 2006, a figure that includes renewals of previously issued visas. But Robert Hoffman, an Oracle spokesman, said his company could only confirm that it made 170 new H-1B hires in the federal government's fiscal year 2007, which runs from October to September.

However, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Oracle applied for 737 visas in 2006, up from 264 in 2005 but down from 1,627 in 2004. Hoffman, however, called those numbers "highly inaccurate."

"There's no good data," said Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel, an industry trade group. "We know demand well exceeds supply, but we don't really know what the demand is."

Dispersed oversight

The confusion over the numbers highlights the incredibly complex nature of the H-1B program, which involves three federal agencies. And the lack of real, fundamental data about who is using these controversial visas and for which jobs has frustrated folks on all sides of the debate.

"I think that's pretty indicative of the oversight of this program," said Sonia Ramirez, legislative representative for the AFL-CIO. "There are a number of agencies with responsibility. And in some cases, they don't know how many visas they've issued. And in the end, that weakens the enforcement of the program and protection for workers."

High-tech companies have been lobbying for years to raise the cap on the 65,000 H-1B visas issued every year. Critics who oppose an expansion argue that the visas take high-paying jobs from Americans and give them to lower-paid immigrants.

The comprehensive immigration bill that was recently defeated in Congress would have almost doubled the number of H-1B visas to 115,000 a year, exempting 40,000 people with higher degrees from any restrictions. It also would have accelerated the employer-based green-card system for workers already here, a provision that tech companies favor because it allows them to move current, temporary workers to permanent status and free up H-1B visas for other workers.

How steep is the demand for those additional visas? Here is what is known:

The federal government awarded 124,096 H-1B visas in the fiscal year ending October 2005, the most recent annual totals available. That includes renewed visas, which don't count against the annual cap. It doesn't include the 20,312 applications the government turned down.

Companies filed 119,193 applications for the 65,000 visas that will be awarded for the fiscal year starting in October 2007.

There were so many applications that, after two days in April, the government cut them off. It continued to take applications for the 20,000 visa exemptions for people with master's degrees until April 30.

Reaching the cap so quickly only further antagonized tech companies.

"I think one of the frustrations we have about the government running out of H-1Bs in April is that you have an entire graduation class that's not even eligible," Hoffman said.

Despite the demand, it's hard to know who gets the visas and how they are used.

Complicated process

In part, that's because of the byzantine process for applying and granting the visas. A company that wants H-1B visas files an application with the U.S. Department of Labor. The Labor Department screens the applications, then passes them to the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Applications approved by the immigration service are then forwarded to the U.S. Department of State, which actually issues the visas.

So who wants these visas? And how badly? To answer that question, the Mercury News first examined a series of databases on the Labor Department's Web site.

Looking at one company, Cisco Systems of San Jose, the data showed the number of H-1B applications filed by Cisco rose from 481 in 2004 to 1,027 in 2005 to 2,283 in 2006. When asked about those numbers, company spokeswoman Robyn Jenkins would neither confirm or deny them.

"There is currently a shortage of technically skilled workers in the U.S., and as Cisco hiring overall has increased in recent years, so has our use of H-1Bs to fill certain highly specialized positions," Jenkins wrote in an e-mail.

But Shotwell, the tech-industry lobbyist, said such tallies are misleading because companies often file multiple applications for a single person or large blanket applications for a number of positions they might not ultimately need because they want as many as possible before the cap is reached.

Still, the applications do show the types of jobs companies hope to fill. At the low end, Cisco wanted a visa for a customer support engineer position that would pay at least $46,900 annually. At the high end, Cisco wanted a visa for a director of manufacturing that would pay from $166,566 to $212,300.

Visa lottery

To get a clearer picture of the H-1B numbers, a Labor Department spokesman recommended contacting the Homeland Security Department, where the immigration service conducts a lottery to award the visas.

Initially, a Homeland Security spokeswoman said the department doesn't release figures on the number of visas awarded to individual companies.

"I don't believe we compile that information," said spokeswoman Sharon Rummery. "And it may be that we don't have any operational use for that."

A short time later, Rummery found a list of the top 20 employers receiving H-1B visas in 2006. The list is dominated by India-based outsourcing companies, such as Wipro and Infosys, which at No. 1 and No. 2 respectively received 3,143 and 3,125 new visas. The only Silicon Valley company on the list was Intel, ranked No. 13 with 613. Microsoft was fifth with 1,297.

But another list circulating on Capitol Hill told a somewhat different story. That list was also from the Homeland Security Department and included the number of new visas as well as the number of renewal visas.

According to that list, Oracle outranked Intel, receiving 1,022 visas in 2006. Intel received 828, as did Cisco; Yahoo received 347; and Hewlett-Packard received 333.

HP spokeswoman Pamela Bonney couldn't offer any guidance on the accuracy of the numbers.

"HP does not track visa applications filed on an annual basis," she wrote in an e-mail. "I can confirm that the employees that have H-1B visas are less than 2 percent of HP's total U.S. employee population."

Last stop: the State Department. A spokeswoman said the department doesn't disclose detailed numbers regarding H-1B visas.

Contact Chris O'Brien at or (415) 298-0207.