Expanded visa program for US H2B seasonal workers to start 25 May

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Under pressure from Congress to quickly expand the number of foreign workers allowed in the United States, federal immigration officials will begin accepting H2B visa applications for returning seasonal workers on 25 May. Some approvals could take up to 90 days, creating problems for parts of the summer tourism industry.

To avoid the delay, business owners -- from Cape Cod restaurateurs to Maryland crabbers -- said they will probably pay a $1,000 fee per worker for expedited reviews, so they can get approvals in about two weeks.

Chris Bentley, spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), said the agency is ready for an expected influx of thousands of applications.

Prodded by merchants and industry leaders who found themselves shut out of the H2B visa program this year, members of Congress pushed through the legislation as part of an Iraq spending bill, and it was signed into law by the president last week.

The H2B visa program reached its cap of 66,000 workers in January, leaving many companies without workers because they can't apply for the visas until 120 days before the employees are needed. The new law exempted from the cap foreign workers who have been hired in previous years, and it gave USCIS two weeks to set up new guidelines and begin taking applications.

Congressional staff said they have been told by immigration officials that the goal is to process applications in 60 days.