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.

Labels: ,


Anil P said...


Increasingly many H1-B workers are beginning to prefer returning to India.

10:58 PM  
Sourav said...

I think at the root of this lies the handing of F1 student visas. As of now, from what I heard from friends, it is very easy to get a F1 visa as opposed to even four years back when students were denied en mass. (Students weeping was a very common sight). I think this was probably due to the lack of graduate students for pursuing research.

I guess most students come to the US with the intention of settling here, or at least working here for a while. This is where the H1B problem crops up. Since so many students started coming in over the past two years, this year's cap for advanced degree holders got over on April 30 (as opposed to the year before when it went on till well into June), while the regular cap got over the next day (as opposed to the projected date of April 15).

And assuming that the number of applicants will be more next year, unless the cap is substantially increased, it will be hit and trial again. But then increasing the number of H1B visas leads to the problem of Green Cards, as you mention. As of now, I believe only PhD holders are fast-tracked to GC status.

I am also not sure of this, but the cap for the number of H1B visas has remained constant since 1990. A law which had doubled this number expired a couple of years back - again, I have only read this on some forum and am not sure if it is right or not.

In addition to fast-tracking advanced degree holders to GC status, I think the cap for H1B should be altogether removed for them.

2:06 AM  
Anonymous said...

Not all H-1B visa holders are high-skilled, and certainly are not the "best and brightest" as Gates and his ilk like to claim. Over 40% of H-1B visa applications in Chennai were found to be fraudulent.

Also, the claim that there is a shortage of skilled Americans is a lie. The job ads are framed in such a way that Americans, especially older ones, are deemed ineligible.

Look up the work of Prof. Ron Hira and watch this video to see what I mean: http://youtube.com/watch?v=TCbFEgFajGU.

Just for the record, I am a displaced Indian-American IT manager with a degree from IIT.

1:28 PM  
Sourav said...


I saw the video and frankly, some parts of it look dubbed over. There are a lot weird people on the net with weirder thoughts, and who would get their point across in the weirdest ways possible.

That being said, it is true though that the system is being abused by "head-hunting" agencies that apply for bogus H1B's. That person is then able to transfer it once he or she finds an actual job. From that perspective it is true they aren't necessarily the "best and the brightest". This also hurts intl students in the US with legitimate degrees and real jobs who are not able to get a visa because they were "unlucky" in a lucky draw.

What is even weirder is that on April 1, almost no one has a degree unless they graduate in advance. There are many students who only have their thesis to defend and have hence technically not graduated. Sometimes this is hard to prove. There are occasions when letters obtained from universities stating so are "poorly worded" and are rejected.

11:22 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home