KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.
For tens of thousands of immigrants in the U.S., Tuesday is a big deadline. April 1st is the first day the U.S. government will accept applications for high-skilled work visas known as H-1B visas. There has been a lot of arguing about these visas, specifically about how many H-1Bs the U.S. should grant. Some lawmakers are afraid immigrants with college degrees will fill jobs that should go to Americans.
CEOs of tech and science companies say there simply aren't enough qualified Americans to fill every job. All the arguing has ended in a stalemate. Since 2004, only 65,000 H-1B visas have been offered each year, even though last year, there were twice that many applicants.
Eli Kantor is an immigration lawyer here in Los Angeles.
ELI KANTOR: When the economy was good, they would run out of visas right away. When the economy was bad, you had a few months. Now, immigration has a rule that you cannot apply for a visa more than six months in advance.
MCEVERS: For immigrants, this is where the crazy bureaucratic calculating begins. If you want an H-1B visa for next year, fiscal year 2015, you have to understand that actually begins on October 1st. And the first day you can apply is April 1, 2014. Kantor says the application takes months to put together and thousands of dollars to file.
KANTOR: It's like a minefield. If you check one box wrong, the whole thing gets rejected. We need to get the college transcripts. We need them translated and send it to a credentials evaluation (unintelligible) form called Form I-129. Go online and do a bit of research. And the third piece of the puzzle is the money.
MCEVERS: The money means your paycheck. You have to prove that hiring you, your employer won't hurt the U.S. labor market. It also means the cost of applying, which can be upwards of $6,000. And since there are so few visas available, Kantor says, that application better arrive on time.
KANTOR: Which means that Monday, March 31st, I'm sending all of my cases FedEx to the California Service Center, to immigration so that they'll get it on the very first day. The trick is you have to win the lottery.
MCEVERS: Catch that? Even if you do everything right, it's a game of chance. And it's not the only U.S. visa that works that way. This year, about half the people who apply for H-1Bs will get them through the lottery.
BHAVIK BHATT: My name is Bhavik Bhatt. I am an Indian national currently working for a generic pharmaceutical company in southeast Florida. And I'm hoping to continue this position pending the visa.
MCEVERS: Bhatt is one of the estimated 180,000 people who are hoping to get an H-1B visa this spring. He's exactly the kind of immigrant these visas are made for. He moved to the U.S. 12 years ago, got two degrees, including a Ph.D. in pharmaceutical science. His company really wants him to stay, so much so they sponsored him twice for an H-1B visa. The first time was last spring.
BHATT: It looked simple enough on paper. It looked simple enough on the website, but 15 days before the visa application process started, the government decided to announce that, hey, you know what, we're expecting a lottery this year. And when I started looking into this, it turns out that it doesn't matter where you got the degree from or what kind of degree you have. The chances of getting the visa are all dependent on how many applications the government receives in the first one week when the (unintelligible) opens up. And that's where the panic set in.
MCEVERS: Because, yeah, it's - I mean, up to that point, it was just you were filling out your forms and doing everything according to the instructions. And that didn't seem that hard.
BHATT: Yeah, yeah. I mean, no one thought about lottery at that time. It just seemed - it looked like a simple process.
MCEVERS: Mm-hmm. And so what happened?
BHATT: Month and a half down the line, I got a call back from my attorney saying, Bhavik, I have some bad news for you. We got your application back because of the lottery. You were not selected. The first thought that came to my mind was, how am I going to pack up everything and go back home? How was I going to say goodbye to everyone? How was I going to say, how do I consolidate my life for the last 12 years and just leave?
MCEVERS: Bhatt and his lawyer frantically looked for a short-term solution. They ended up getting a one-year extension on his student visa, but that runs out in February. So this week, Bhatt is applying again for the H-1B.
BHATT: This time, I'm at least a little more prepared. I'm only keeping my eye open towards the job openings in other countries. That's a first step. If I don't find anything right away, I may go home.
MCEVERS: You know, after all this time, you've gone through 12 years of education here in the United States. I mean, what do you think about a system that then just, you know, based on luck decides whether you can continue doing that work or not?
BHATT: Honestly, I didn't think about it up until now. I mean, I would've thought that, you know, U.S. being what it is would've had, you know, a decent or at least an immigration system that would've processed applications based on merit and not just luck.
MCEVERS: Do you believe in luck?
BHATT: So far, yes. I just hope I have one more shred of luck left for the next month and that's it.
MCEVERS: The lottery for H-1B visas begins Tuesday. The government expects all the spots to be filled within six weeks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.