The delivery trucks began arriving before daybreak Monday, lining up before a massive government building that rises above Orange County's suburban sprawl at Laguna Niguel, as the starting gun went off on application season for skilled-worker visas, known as H-1B visas, reports The New York Times.
These visas allow US employers, primarily technology companies, to bring in foreign workers for three years at a time. For the past few years, the federal government has been so overwhelmed by applications that it has stopped accepting them within a week of opening day - hence the line of trucks trying to deliver H-1B applications before the doors close on the programme for another year.
And this year, the rush has escalated to an all-out scramble because the H-1B program's future is unclear.
While proponents see it as vital to American innovation, opponents criticise the program as a scheme to displace US workers with cheaper foreign labour. President Donald Trump has vowed to overhaul it and lawmakers from both parties have drafted bills to alter it.
At campaign rallies, Trump introduced laid-off Americans who had been asked to train their foreign successors at companies including Disney. ''We won't let this happen anymore,'' Trump thundered in one speech about the practice, which he has deemed ''outrageous'' and ''demeaning''.
Over the weekend, US Citizenship and Immigration Services announced a technical change that could make it harder for entry-level programmers to receive the visas, and on Monday, the Justice Department warned that it would investigate companies it believed had overlooked qualified US workers.
''The Justice Department will not tolerate employers misusing the H-1B visa process to discriminate against US workers,'' Tom Wheeler, head of the department's civil rights division, said in a statement.
Each year, 65,000 H-1B visas are made available to workers with bachelor's degrees, and 20,000 more are earmarked for those with master's degrees or higher.
When the gates swung open at the government processing centre Monday, the very first truck in line, a FedEx rig, carried 15,000 packages, a courier, Andrew Langyo, told NYT.
''We're loaded, and we have more trucks coming,'' said Langyo, who would return two hours later in the same truck with another haul.
Last year, the government took in 236,000 applications in the first week before deciding it would accept no more. A computer randomly chose the winners.
The average H-1B petition, a collection of forms and documents attesting to the bona fides of a job offer and the person chosen to fill it, is about two inches thick. But some files are six inches fat and weigh several pounds, according to Bill Yates, former director of the Vermont Service Center, which also processes H-1B applications.
Yates recalled some mishaps, like the time a driver bound for the centre in Vermont drove 50 miles unaware that his truck's back door had swung open, spilling its cargo onto the road.
The visas are attractive not only to the companies that file the applications, but also to the workers themselves, who can become eligible for a green card while working on an H-1B.
''In America, you're in the centre of new technology and cutting-edge changes in the IT industry,'' said Nguyen, 25. ''I would contribute directly to the company and to software development in the US.''
Indians in the lead
In 2014, the last year for which information is available, just 13 outsourcing firms accounted for a third of all granted visas. The top recipients were Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro, all based in India.
The companies, which subcontract their employees to banks, retailers and other businesses in the United States to do programming, accounting and other work, often inundate the federal immigration service with tens of thousands of applications.
BitTitan, a growing company that hopes to hire 60 engineers in the next 12 months, is submitting six applications. ''We are trying to fill specific positions around cloud and artificial intelligence,'' chief executive Geeman Yip said. ''If we can't fill them, our innovation suffers.''
Several bipartisan bills pending in the Senate and the House seek to make companies give greater priority to American workers before they fill jobs with H-1B visas. They also seek to raise the minimum pay for the jobs, which depend on skill level and location - a computer systems analyst in Pittsburgh, for example, must make at least $49,000 under current regulations.
The theory is that higher pay would make those jobs more competitive with US-filled positions and eliminate some of the rationale for importing workers.
Changing the rules
A draft of a presidential executive order on ''protecting American jobs and workers by strengthening the integrity of foreign worker visa programs'' was distributed widely in late January but never signed. But without warning over the weekend, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services published a memo on its website that could affect many applications.
Specifically, companies seeking to import computer programmers at the lowest pay levels will have to prove that the work they perform qualifies as ''specialty'' labour, which is what the H-1B visas were created for. ''There will be greater scrutiny of the role the company wants to fill,'' said Lynden Melmed, a lawyer in Washington and a former chief counsel for the immigration service.
The measure appears to be directed mainly at outsourcing firms, rather than the big technology companies, which tend to hire workers at higher skill and pay levels.
In a statement, the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom), the main trade group for India's outsourcing industry, said, ''The H-1B visa system exists specifically because the US has a persistent shortage of high-skilled IT talent.''
The group said that its members follow all the program's rules, and that the change would have little impact. ''It is aimed at screening out less-qualified workers, whereas our members tend to provide well-credentialed workers to help US companies fill their skills gaps and compete globally,'' the group said.
Even before the memo and the Justice Department's warning, fears about the future of the H-1B program were making this year more pressure-packed than most. ''Just to make sure the petitions get in, almost every client demanded that theirs arrive on the first day,'' Greg McCall, a lawyer at Perkins Coie in Seattle who prepared 150 applications, told NYT.
Inside the federal building, a formidable structure that has provided backdrops for movies including Coma and Outbreak, the logistical dance unfolded over two floors. In the mailroom, about 40 people donning blue gloves sat around tables opening packages that arrived nonstop in 6-foot-high caged bins. In a huge warehouse, those same packages were separated according to whether the applicants had bachelors or masters degrees.
All told, 1,500 workers were involved, with a second shift expected to stretch past normal business hours.
"This is the day we prepare for months and months in advance,'' said Donna P Campagnolo, the center's deputy director.
Trucks came and went all day, with some couriers, including FedEx, staggering their deliveries to avoid situations where dozens of trucks were backed up at the gate.
Some smaller delivery companies received a piece of the action, too. One courier, Fernando Salas, pulled up in a red Suzuki station wagon stuffed with 10 boxes. ''I have 109 envelopes,'' he said. ''That is all that fits in here.''
It was all surprisingly low-tech for a program used primarily for high-tech jobs. Asked why the government had not digitized the process, Campagnolo said, ''There's obviously a lot of paper. There's no denying it.''
The biggest challenge, she said, is ''trash overflow.''