The number of petitions from employers trying to bring foreigners to work permanently in the U.S. has declined dramatically over the last two years, an Associated Press review of government data has found.
With the nation facing a deep recession and high unemployment, the government has received about half the number of employer-sponsored applications for work-based green cards in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 than it did in each of the previous years. There were almost 235,000 applications submitted in fiscal 2007, almost 104,000 the following year, and fewer than 36,000 through the first eight months of fiscal 2009, according to data obtained by the AP.
In addition to the weak job market, long application processing times, deep job cuts in sectors that have traditionally lured large numbers of applicants and more competition from American job seekers have led to the sharp decline, experts say.
"It mirrors the recession. Employers aren't hiring as much," said Kristi Barrows, deputy director of the Texas Service Center.
At the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Texas Service Center in Dallas, would-be immigrant workers once waited a year or longer for a decision. Now, with the drop in applications and addition of staff, the Texas center has trimmed the average wait for those petitions and the others it processes to about five months, a marked improvement that's still a month shy of the agency's target timeframe.
The Texas processing center and one in Lincoln, Nebraska, handle the nation's foreign worker applications for permanent residence, known as green cards.
To bring in a foreign worker, employers must prove that they couldn't find a staffer in the U.S. who met the minimum requirements for the job, that they're financially healthy and that they will pay the prevailing wage. The potential worker must have specialized skills, be able to fill a job Americans aren't or have extraordinary abilities, such as those of musicians or pro athletes.
In fiscal year 2007, the latest year for which the statistics were available, most applicants came from India, Mexico, the Philippines, China and Korea, according to the Department of Labor.
"We want people to come to our country who are the best," Barrows said.
Many economic sectors hardest hit in the economic downturn are among those that attracted the largest numbers of foreign workers, including the hospitality and financial industries. And some businesses still hiring are getting more applications from Americans, making it less likely the Labor Department will let them import foreign workers to fill positions, said Kathleen Campbell Walker, an El Paso attorney who specializes in immigration employment law and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Horacio Alday, 34, said the Houston firm where he works as an auditor recently told him and the rest of its temporary foreign workers it would not be sponsoring them for green cards because of the economy.
"Because of the situation and ... people out there looking for job, they're not willing to sponsor you," said Alday, who is Guatemalan. "They don't need to, I guess."
One unforeseen benefit of the drop in applications is that Citizenship and Immigration Services has been able to work through a large backlog that had led to wait times of 15 months or more in some cases.
With a lighter work load and a larger staff in place, the approval process now takes less than six months on average from start to finish, Barrows said.