New Delhi: Concerned that foreign companies may be abusing B-1 visas to get around H-1B visa restrictions, US senator Charles E. Grassley formally submitted a letter to secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton and secretary of department of homeland security Janet Napolitano on Thursday seeking an investigation into the use of the visa programme.

Seeking answers: Republican senator Charles E. Grassley.

B-1 visas are issued for short-term business trips for such purposes as attending business seminars, and restricts employees from engaging in gainful employment during their stay. On the other hand, H-1B visas are longer term visas issued to people with a bachelor’s degree who work in speciality occupations. The US government has set a cap of 65,000 H1-B visas to be issued every year and most of them are used by Indian computer software firms. There is no such cap on B-1 visas.

According to Palmer’s complaint, filed in an Alabama court, Infosys has been “sending lower-level and unskilled foreigners to the United States to work in full-time positions at Infosys’ customer sites in direct violation of immigration laws". Palmer also claimed that Infosys coached employees going to the US on B-1 visas on how to pass the immigration interview.

Infosys said it was aware of the letter Grassley has sent to Clinton and Napolitano.

“As we have previously stated, in response to the allegations in the lawsuit mentioned in Senator Grassley’s letter, we have undertaken an internal review of our practices relating to our business visa program and our compliance with the requirements associated with that program," the company said in a statement. “At this time, we do not believe it is appropriate to comment publicly on Senator Grassley’s letter, but we can assure you that Infosys takes its compliance and governance responsibilities very seriously."

In his letter, Grassley sought detailed statistics regarding the number of B-1 visas issued, the employer using them, the total number of B-1 visa holders petitioned for and approved each year, and the length of time they stay. He also raised concerns about potential abuse of the “B-1 in lieu of H-1B" visas—a programme that allows companies to legally send B-1 visa holders to do work generally restricted to H-1B visa holders—and requested data on the number of such visas issued, the US companies hosting the workers, and foreign companies paying the worker’s salary.

While Som Mittal, president of Indian IT lobby body Nasscom, did not comment on Infosys’ name being mentioned in the letter, he said the lawsuit against the company might have triggered the letter. “Indian companies need to and are following the law of land. It is important for countries to maintain a free flow of highly skilled people, and they have to make sure that their immigration policies do not impact the business adversely. The US has gained by leveraging global talent to improve its competitiveness."

Additionally, Grassley has also requested details on how the US department of state verifies the proper use of the B-1 visa, what actions are taken against violators, and the legal justification for the “B-1 in lieu of H-1B" category. “My hope is that your departments will cooperate to make sure that the B-1 visa program is not being abused by employers who wish to get around the annual caps and prevailing wage requirements imposed by the H-1B visa program," he wrote. He requested that Clinton and Napolitano respond to his request no later than 28 April.

Mittal added that in the past there have been many investigations into the issue and, by and large, nothing has been found that suggests misuse of visas. “Given the complexity of the business, there are obviously different interpretations and technical issues... The B-1 visa is used extensively for business development, training and requirement analysis etc., and since the customers do not pay for these services, these are legitimate use of B-1," he said.

This is not the first time that senator Grassley has raised concerns about the misuse of various visa programmes. In 2009, Grassley, along with senator Richard Durbin, introduced a Bill in Congress to impose greater restrictions and oversight on the H-1B and L-1 visa programmes.

Also, on 31 March, Grassley sent a letter to department of homeland security inspector general Charles Edwards, requesting an investigation into use of L-visas, used for inter-company transfers.

Thursday’s letter comes amid heightened scrutiny in the US on the issue of business visa misuse: late last month, the house judiciary committee held a public hearing on proper use of the H-1B visa programme. Such concerns may explain why the visa rejection rate for L-visas has spiked from 2-3% two years ago to nearly 20% today, minister counsellor for consular affairs James Herman had told Mint earlier this month.

On 9 April, Mint reported that five companies have recently been suspended from the business executive program (BEP), which expedites visa applications for large multinational companies.

Two remain suspended, and three have been reinstated.

In order to raise the level of dialogue between BEP companies and embassies issuing visas, Herman met with a number of the BEP companies in Bangalore on Thursday, when he spoke about visa use by Indian and American companies, and invited “open dialogue" to educate them about the proper way to file visa applications.

Nikhil Kanekal and Surabhi Agarwal contributed to this story.