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Hanging In Balance

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April 2009
Hanging In Balance

Long seen as a ticket to the American Dream, the H1-B visa has of late become a double-edged sword for many Indians. Caught between the U.S., where the welcome is wearing thin, and India, where the road is getting bumpy, these visa holders often face hard choices and, after years in this country, an increasingly uncertain future.

By Mandira Banerjee

“Standing in line, papers in my hand,

All my answers, practiced and planned,

He asked, would ya ever come back home? [incredulous laughter]

Yes sir, I will, but first give me that H-1B!”

The above excerpt is not from a real visa interview. Rather, it’s from the lyrics of the lead song in H1Bees, an album produced by Shankar Nagarajan and Srikanth Devarajan, two professionals who came to the United States on H-1B visas in the 1990s. Released a few years ago, their album focuses on the life of an individual on an H-1B visa. “We received enthusiastic responses not only in the United States, but also from immigrants in the U.K., Australia, France,” says Srikanth, the lyricist. Shankar, the co-producer, adds, “Once you are displaced from your home country and you travel to another culture, you are bound to face challenges—economic, cultural, social. This is the story of how you adapt and thrive in these unique situations. This is the story of H1Bees.”

Take, for example, L.S. Narsi Narasimhan, founder of the Atlanta-based Indian Professionals Network and CEO of Paalam Inc. He came to the University of Texas at Dallas in the 1980s on a student visa. Now a successful entrepreneur who hires H-1B employees for his company, he remembers being on an H-1B. He feels a lot has changed since then. Narsimhan says that being on an “H-1B is a lot tougher now than it was 10 years ago.”

Swati, a software engineer working for a small company in Michigan, came to the United States seven years ago, and started working on an H-1B visa three years back. “I worked in India for a year before I got married and came to this country,” she says, adding that she had never planned on coming to America. “Life was good there, I had my job, my friends and my family,” she reminisces. Things changed when she got married to Anand, who was finishing his graduate school and had received a job offer in San Francisco.

Their story is similar to that of many others who came to this country because they could—for career advancement, for higher education and for interesting work—and slowly put down roots in America. “I didn't know what to expect,” says Swati, who experienced culture shock even though she knew about life in this country. For Sharada, who came to the United States in March 2008 on an H-1B, it is the work culture that stood out. “I came from a company where there were not many management hierarchies and where there was a friendly environment. The U.S. firm, on the other hand, is very structured and process-oriented. It also has a more formal environment,” she says, adding that though one can reach out to colleagues and connect over lunches, the relationships are mostly professional.

The rush for these visas began in the 1990s, especially in the burgeoning high-tech sector, where companies like Microsoft were aggressively recruiting foreign nationals to fill positions in their work force. Others came on an F-1, a student visa, and then converted it to a work visa when they graduated and found a job. The work visa allows firms to hire foreign workers and keep them in the United States for up to six years or, in some cases, longer.

The debate

While H-1B has fueled the growth of foreign workers in the country, the program is not without controversy. There have been proponents for and against the program and the debate has become acrimonious at times.

The best-known supporters of H-1B are Bill Gates of Microsoft and Robert Hoffman, the vice president of government and public affairs at Oracle Corp. and co-chair of Compete America. They have observed that American technology jobs cannot be filled with American citizens alone. In early 2008, Bill Gates called on Congress to increase the number of H-1B visas, arguing that America would lose its global competitiveness if the cap on H-1B visas wasn’t removed.

His critics, on the other hand, are pushing to protect jobs for Americans and keeping wages up. They contend that American companies are using the program to shift jobs to foreign nationals who can be easily fired and replaced, and possibly paid less.

Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, says that the H-1B visa is a double-edged sword. “On one hand it has been a critical path for skilled workers to gain permanent residence in the United States. Those workers are net pluses to the American economy and probably to American workers.” On the other hand, he argues, the H-1B program is rife with loopholes that enable firms to pay below-market wages and also to facilitate work shipped to low-cost countries. He adds that this hurts American workers by undercutting their wages and destroying job opportunities.

Kim Berry, president of the Programmers’ Guild, puts forth a similar argument when he says that companies use the H-1B visa as a means to train foreigners in the United States to allow them to set up shop overseas.

“They don't use the H-1B as a bridge to immigration,” says Hira, adding that there needs to be a change in the policy to make it a “level playing field” for American workers and those on H-1B visas.

The economic downturn

A lot has changed since the recent economic downturn. For professionals on H-1B, the rising unemployment rate is especially daunting. Laid-off workers are scrambling for temporary visas and seeking advice from immigration attorneys about how long they can legally stay in the country while hunting for jobs.

Though there is no official tally of visa holders who have been laid off, “it's happening every day,” according to Charles Kuck, Atlanta-based immigration attorney and president of the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association.

“I have been receiving calls from H1-Bs in all industries—healthcare, architecture, finance, it’s not limited to one field,” adds Kuck. Neera Behl, another immigration attorney, outlines the precarious situation of being on an H1-B visa. “If you lose a job, you have 10 business days to look for another job to transfer the visa,” she says, adding, “If you don’t have an H-1B, you are out of status.”

Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Harvard Law School and executive in residence/adjunct professor at Duke University who researches the immigrant jobs market, estimates that 50,000 skilled Indian and Chinese professionals have gone back to their home country over the past 20 years. But with the recent economic downturn, he predicts that 100,000 will do so in the next five years. “When H-1Bs lose their jobs, they lose their right to stay in the country,” points out Wadhwa. That includes many Indians and Chinese professionals who have lived in the country for years and have been waiting for green cards.

Many are expecting a backlash against the H-1B visas. In February, the U.S. Congress voted for imposing strict conditions on hiring people with H-1B visas by American companies receiving federal bailout money. Foreigners cannot be hired if American workers are available. Restricting the hiring of H1-B visa holders forms part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, widely known as the stimulus bill.

Life on an H-1B

Many argue that even without the recent economic crunch, it has become much more difficult to obtain an H-1B as the applicants have grown in number. As Durga, an online-advertising specialist, explains, “It has become a game of luck in which no matter how qualified or experienced you are, you will not get a work permit if your number wasn’t part of the draw for that year.”

Ashish, who has been working on an H-1B visa with Praxair in Buffalo, New York, highlights the fact that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service gets more than double the number of applications as the H1-B quota every year. “It shows that the U.S. economy needs foreign workers to fill the gaps,” he adds. Many H-1B professionals feel that the cap on H-1B visas may translate into the United States losing the competitive edge in technology and innovation that it has so far enjoyed.

Vivek Wadhwa describes the return of H-1B workers to their home countries as a reverse brain drain. “Most students and skilled temporary workers who come to the United States want to stay—but we’re leaving these potential immigrants little choice but to return home.”

In non-technology fields, getting an H-1B is more challenging. Durga, who was searching for a job last year, was told by a recruiter in Chicago that the clients “won’t want to touch her with a bargepole because she needed an H1-B visa to work for them.” So she moved to New York, where “it has been easier moving on to a better position.”

The major issue with H-1B visas is that it is tied to an employer. So, in many ways, H-1B workers are at the mercy of their employer-sponsors. If they are fired or choose to quit, they must return to their native countries. They can't change jobs unless the old and new employers agree. “There was a situation in 2001 where my then-employer gave me two months’ notice to find another job since they were cutting costs and had to let people go. It was a little nerve-wracking until I found my next job,” says Shankar (H-1Bees), who now has a green card. Durga, too, feels restricted by the visa situation. “I feel like I am leashed to a post and always straining at it. If I didn’t need a work permit, I would have been able to move into a field that better suits my temperament and my long-term goals.”

It’s more difficult for families when they come over and find out that spouses aren’t allowed to work or obtain Social Security numbers, which are usually needed for things like bank accounts and driver’s licenses.

Among the benefits of the visa, however, is that it allows workers to apply for a green card to gain permanent residency in the United States. Though there are no statistics on how many apply for a green card, Narasimhan guesses that about 70–80 percent of professionals choose to apply for the green card. He adds, “I hear that the green-card process now takes too much time. That makes it harder for people to use H1-B as a vehicle to immigrate to this country on a permanent basis.”

This cause is close to the heart of Immigration Voice, an organization that is pushing to remove the country quota system in the green-card process and to expedite the road to permanent residency. Jay Pradhan is the spokesperson for the group. He describes the situation as broken and one that needs a serious overhaul. “Consider this. If there are two employees in Microsoft, one from India and another from Russia and they both apply for green cards at the same time, the Russian national will receive his green card in two to three years, while it may take anything between six and eight years for the Indian national. I think it is unfair.”

Hira agrees. “I think we should skew our immigration policies so that a larger share admitted for permanent residence are skilled workers. It is unreasonable for immigrants to wait six to eight years to gain permanent residency,” he says, adding that his parents, too, came to the United States on a green card many decades ago.

But the path from H-1B to green card is fraught with uncertainty. If an H-1B worker leaves a job, the green-card process must begin again if the application is still pending. “Several people give up promotions and lucrative job offers because of the fear of starting the process all over again,” explains Pradhan. And why is the green card so important? The green card, Hira notes, gives workers leverage when negotiating better wages and landing new jobs.

When asked if there are any negative impacts of the H-1B status in the workplace, everyone agrees that the workplace is largely apolitical, although a green card can provide a greater feeling of job security.

Another incentive for seeking a longer-term arrangement is personal. While the visas are temporary, life goes on. With each passing year the sense of permanence, and community, grows. For Ashish and Urvi, their life is not an island. Ashish is on an H-1B visa and Urvi will be on the job market next year. They have relatives who made the same journey a decade ago. Both their siblings have followed their paths and live in this country now. Ashish is also a part of an amateur cricket club that meets every fortnight and Urvi attends her favorite festival, Ganesh Chaturthi, every year at the local temple. They’ve built a life here while on a temporary visa.

Going back

Yet, for some on the H-1B program, the tug of home remains strong. They embrace America, taking advantage of its opportunities, yet there is a part of them that misses life in India. Sharada observes, “Staying away from my family is a great personal challenge. The thought that I'll be able to see them only once for three or four weeks in a year is a bit saddening.” For Swati, it is raising her kids in the United States, away from all her relatives, that causes a twinge of sadness. “I feel terrible that my parents will be able to see their grandchildren only for a few weeks every two to three years.” But a greater challenge is bringing them up here in the American culture. “I now realize the efforts my parents took in our upbringing and often worry how I will be able to inculcate Indian values in my kids.”

A recent survey by Vivek Wadhwa also shows that attachment to the family back home is an important factor in many people’s decision to go back. In a survey of 1,250 returnees to India and China, Wadhwa found the number-one reason for going home was family ties. Pay seemed less important. “The vast majority said they were doing better back home, although very few were making more money,” he said. “Quality of life was better in India with some citing better education for children and better opportunities.” However, returnees with U.S. work experience who head back for a better life—or because they have no other choice—may find they are a less rare and valued commodity than they used to be. Wadhwa says Indian chief executives, including the head of one of the country's top technology businesses, had told him there had been a flood of CVs from the United States in recent months.

Ashish says that some of his friends have gone back to India immediately after graduation, while some chose not even to try for a job here, and some, after looking for a job and not getting one due to the slump in the economy. The critics of the visa use the economy as a point to bolster their argument. “With the economy not doing well, there is a lesser reason to increase the H-1B quota,” says Kim Berry.

Many H-1B visa holders are considering India as an alternative to a visa-bound life. Shankar, the co-producer of H-1Bees, says that many of his friends have gone back to India on lucrative offers and are doing very well. “Some have gone back because of family circumstances. Many others are investing over there. I do feel the notion of working in the U.S. is no longer aspirational, as it used to be.” Sharada adds that the culture in India is changing fast. “Metropolitan cities in India have multiple cuisines; rock bands tour India; one can see American sitcoms; and the pay is on the rise too. The future Indian city will soon be indistinguishable from any American city.” But Swati warns that the move to India has to be considered carefully. “After talking to friends who have moved back, I get the sense they are mostly happy with their move but frustrated by the infrastructural inadequacies in India.”

So with all the advantages and pitfalls, what does a person on the H-1B visa have to say about the experience? Durga says that, overall, H1-B visas are great because they allow a person to explore work opportunities in the United States, which translates into solid work experience and dollars. “You imbibe the American work culture, which is one of the most highly productive in the world, while being exposed to a lot of innovative business practices,” she adds. Swati wouldn’t have it any other way. “It is a bumpy ride, but it is my shot at my American Dream.”

Sidebar

Decoding H1-B

The H-1B is a government visa program for highly skilled and sought-after workers with specialty skills like accounting, computer engineering and medicine, and it is intended for U.S. companies that cannot find citizens to fill those jobs. The companies recruit and sponsor the foreign workers, applying for the H-1B visas on their behalf.

Congress limits the number of H-1Bs the government can grant to 65,000 a year, but the government receives twice or thrice that number of requests. As a result, the visa process has changed to a lottery system, further complicating the process.

According to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, the Indian population in the United States grew from almost 1,678,000 in 2000 to 2,319,000 in 2005, a growth rate of 38 percent, the highest for any Asian-American community, and made the Indian Americans among the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. The growth could be to a large extent driven by the need for workers in fields like technology. According to a survey conducted in 2006, of all computer systems analysts and programmers on H-1B visas in the country, 74 percent were from Asia. About 25 percent of the total of H-1B visas were granted to Indian citizens. There are over 250,000 foreign students in U.S. universities. In the engineering schools alone, 60 percent of Ph.D. candidates and 42 percent of master’s candidates are foreign nationals.


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