- U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has reached the congressionally mandated cap of 33,000 H-2B visa petitions for the second half of fiscal year (FY) 2019, the department announced. The final receipt date for new cap-subject H-2B petitions was Feb. 19, 2019, for an employment starting date before Oct. 1, 2019. USCIS will reject new cap-subject petitions it received after Feb. 19 that request an employment starting date preceding Oct. 1, 2019.
- On Feb. 19, the number of petitions USCIS received surpassed the number of H-2B visas available. Following regulations, the agency used a lottery system to ensure what it called the "fair and orderly" selection of petitions that meet, but not exceed, the remaining number of visas under the FY 2019 cap. Petitions chosen in the lottery were assigned a receipt date of Feb. 22, and premium processing of petitions drawn in the lottery also started on that date.
- Congress caps the petitions at 66,000 a year, or 33,000 for the first half of a fiscal year (Oct. 1 – March 31) and 33,000 for the second half of a fiscal year (April 1 – Sept. 30). USCIS continues accepting H-2B petitions that are exempt from the cap, including current H-2B workers in the U.S. that are petitioning to extend their stay and, if eligible, change their employment terms or change employers.
The April 1 – Sept. 30 date range is often the time of year when U.S. employers depend on temporary workers the most, particularly restaurants, hotels, resorts and tourists' attractions that are popular destinations during the spring, summer and early autumn months. As employers in those industries struggle to attract talent, some have come to rely on H-2B visas to make up gaps. But the shortage of H-2B visas during the last few years, driven by the high demand of workers and late granting of petitions, devastated and, in some cases, permanently threatened to close some establishments.
Employers can expect more uncertainty — and possibly more disappointment — in being granted visas in FY 2019. The problem is especially acute in this labor market, marked by talent shortages and an unemployment rate hovering around 4%. While the question "where are the U.S.-born workers?" remains a hard one to answer, business advocates claim local markets lack of skilled workers; other groups have called these points "false assumptions."
In particular, H-1B visas for highly skilled workers are increasingly difficult to obtain; petition approvals are down, while requests for additional evidence (RFEs) on applications are up. USCIS approved 84.5% of the H-1B petitions it received in 2018, compared to nearly 93% in 2017. The H-1B visa program has undergone various tweaks and rule changes under the Trump administration resulting in a 77% jump in RFEs in 2018 from the previous year, and with approvals of petitions with an RFE down from 73% in 2017 to 62% in 2018.