Washington: The US has extended by over five months the temporary suspension of premium processing for H1-B visas, popular among Indian IT professionals, as part of its efforts to clear the backlog. Premium processing is a feature that shortens the usual processing time for H-1B visa petitions from an average of six months to 15 calendar days for a fee of $1,225 (Rs 86,181). It allows some companies to jump the queue.

The suspension, announced on Tuesday by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), is expected to last till February 19 next year. The USCIS said it was extending the temporary suspension of premium processing for cap-subject H-1B petitions and, beginning September 11, will expand this temporary suspension to include certain additional H-1B petitions.

Under the premium processing programme, the USCIS has to respond within 15 days to H-1B visa petitions. The USCIS had announced in March that it will temporarily suspend premium processing for all FY2019 cap-subject petitions, including those seeking an exemption for individuals with a US master’s degree or higher. The suspension of premium processing for FY2019 cap-subject H-1B petitions was originally slated to last till 10 September 2018, but the suspension was extended through an estimated date of 19 February 2019.

The USCIS said the temporary suspension will help it reduce the overall H-1B processing time by allowing it to process long-pending petitions. The temporary suspension will also allow the agency to be responsive to petitions with time-sensitive start dates and prioritise adjudication of H-1B extension of status cases that are nearing the 240-day mark. As an H-1B non-immigrant, the applicant may be admitted for a period of up to three years. The time period may be extended, but generally cannot go beyond six years.

The H1-B visa has an annual numerical limit cap of 65,000 for every fiscal year as mandated by the Congress. The first 20,000 petitions filed on behalf of beneficiaries with a US master’s degree or higher are exempt from the cap. Additionally, H1-B workers who are petitioned for or employed at an institution of higher education or its affiliated or related non-profit entities or a non-profit research organisation or a government research organisation are not subject to this numerical cap.

In July, a report by an American non-profit body claimed there was a substantial increase in denial of H-1B visa petitions of Indians by the US Immigration authority. According to the USCIS, between 2007 and 2017, it received the maximum number of 2.2 million H-1B petitions from high-skilled Indians. India was followed by China with 301,000 H-1B petitions during the same period.

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