Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Maltreated H-1B Workers Begin to Find a Voice

There was a thought-provoking article in the SF Chronicle Sunday on the current quandaries faced by high-skilled foreign workers on H-1B Visas in the U.S. A very large proportion of these are Indian (49%), and in high-tech and computer fields (45%).

Currently, the system has problems on every side: first, representatives of software companies (chief among them Microsoft's Bill Gates) have loudly asserted that they need for the number of available H-1B visas to be increased, as there are currently significant numbers of unfilled positions in many computer related fields (and this is even despite the explosion of outsourcing in the past five years). Secondly, there is confusion about whether H-1B should be understood as a temporary visa, or the first stage on the path to a green card; most Indians I know presume it's the latter, while the government still seems to think it's the former. And finally, the system clearly hasn't been working very well for the immigrants themselves: it currently takes between 6 and 12 years for an Indian on an H-1B to be given a green card, even with employers willing to sponsor them. Confusingly, it takes much less time for H-1B workers from other national backgrounds to be given a green card once they find sponsorship.

One of the surprises to me in the SF Chronicle article is the fact that the USCIS doesn't even really know how many H-1B workers with Green Card sponsors there are:

Stuck in the middle is a federal government that has problems tracking the visas. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees this guest-worker program, can't answer basic questions including:

-- How many foreign-born professionals are working in the United States on H-1B visas now?

-- What percentage of H-1B visa holders seek green cards instead of returning home?

-- How many H-1B visa holders and family members are awaiting green cards?

"The cumulative numbers you are looking for simply aren't available," said Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley. "These are not issues we track."

This admission of ignorance is really depressing: it suggests how low on the government's priority list the H1-B workers really are. "It's not something we track" is a way of saying, "no one really seems to care about this."

Fortunately, a new organization has cropped up to advocate for H-1B workers: Immigration Voice. They've hired a PR firm to help them make their case in public, and they're trying to influence the push to reform the H-1B system that is currently starting to work its way through Congress.

On a personal note, I should say that my wife started working in the U.S. (in the Bay Area) on an H-1B visa, and I've seen the ins and outs of this deeply flawed system at work. I feel strongly that the H1-B system is essential to the U.S. economy, and that H-1B workers, who come to the U.S. with advanced university degrees and unique skills, ought to be fast-tracked to permanent resident (Green Card) status. As it is, 1.1 million people (according to Immigration Voice's number) are currently waiting in limbo, unsure whether to plan on staying in the U.S. permanently -- and everything that might come with that -- or whether they should continue to presume they'll be heading back to the countries they started from.

Finally, I also think second-gen desis in the U.S. -- particularly all the desi lawyers out there -- ought to be advocating for better treatment for the Indians who are here on H-1B visas. As of now I haven't seen much of this.

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