I frequently work with CPAs, and they often talk about how busy things get during “tax season.” Immigration law has its own seasons, related to cap-specific work authorization categories, such as the H-1Bs and H-2Bs. H-1Bs are now “in season,” meaning now is the time for some employers to be giving serious consideration to whether or not they wish to hire a foreign national for a specialty occupation in the coming year.
H-1Bs are a popular work authorization status for professionals. The category is reserved for “specialty occupations.” According to USCIS, a specialty occupation “requires theoretical and practical application of a body of specialized knowledge along with at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. For example, architecture, engineering, mathematics, physical sciences, social sciences, medicine and health, education, business specialties, accounting, law, theology, and the arts are specialty occupations.”
Congress has establish annual caps for the number of H-1B workers approved each year. There is a basic cap of 65,000, as well as an additional 20,000 for graduates of advanced degree programs from U.S. schools (e.g. Masters or higher). There are other rules related to cap administration, such as cap exemption and free trade allotments, but basically, there is one big pool of numbers available each year to most employers. When this pool dries up, most employers have to wait until the next fiscal year if they wish to use the program again.
The H-1B cap opens up on April 1st each year, for start dates commencing on October 1st or later. Going back a few years now, the cap used to fill in the first week, due to high demand for H-1B numbers. The agency held lotteries because they received too many applications on April 1st. Times have changed, and for the last couple years, the cap has filled between November and January.
Nobody knows how fast the cap will fill this year, though the numbers seem to go as the economy goes. Broad economic indicators point towards a gradual improvement of the economy, and so it is not unreasonable to expect the numbers to go a bit faster this year. I very much doubt the numbers will be exhausted in the first few months, but late summer is not unrealistic. The bottom line is if an employer wants to bring on a professional from abroad, now is the time to be thinking about it.