U.S. Visa Holders Live With Uncertainty

Technology Staff Editor
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Critics of the H-1B Visa program say U.S. employers are flocking to it to hire cheaper labor. Cherrie Yuen is one of the tens of thousands of H-1B holders who doesn't see things so black and white. Yuen, a Hong Kong native, graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2005 with a master's in computer engineering. Like all foreign national graduates with an advanced degree from a U.S. school, she could stay in the country one year to train with an employer. But like many such grads, her goal was to extend her stay on an H-1B visa. "During that year, I needed to exceed all expectations," she says, so her employer would value her enough to put up with the H-1B expense and bureaucratic hurdles. Yuen made the cut--her employer agreed to sponsor her application in 2005, and she worked with human resources to make sure her application arrived the first day in April they're accepted. She landed a visa. When the U.S. Senate killed the comprehensive immigration reform legislation proposed this year, it left a question hanging in the air: Would the issues of raising the H-1B visa ceiling, reforming the H-1B system, and dramatically altering the green card system be picked up on their own merits? For foreign-born tech workers like Yuen, such uncertainty is nothing new. Whether it's foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities waiting on the H-1B lottery or an employee hoping to land a green card before an H-1B visa runs out, the road to working in the United States is filled with unknowns. Many an American tech worker will snort at such concerns. What about their own fears about job security and career advancement as U.S. companies hire foreign nationals and outsource offshore? We examine those concerns in "To H-1B Or Not To H-1B?". But as U.S. companies rely on foreign-born talent and policy makers mull changes to immigration for well-educated workers, it's worth better understanding the problems people face in the H-1B and green card processes. H-1B workers aren't indentured servants--they can switch employers, if they find one willing to apply for a visa transfer--but some H-1B visa holders waiting for green cards say they can feel like prisoners. That's because once an employer sponsors someone for a green card, the worker must wait it out, sometimes for years. The alternative is to leave the country or find a new company with which to start the process over again. John Guy, who's from England, has worked in the United States under an H-1B visa for more than six years, having had it extended while waiting for his green card. He's in the final stages for his green card--meaning he expects it within three months to two years. Some H-1B visa recipients have the same worries that visa critics do--that employers underpay them. Guy, a software engineer, says his employer pays him about average for what he's doing and has provided needed training. But he tells the story of a friend from South Africa who's waiting for a green card and for years has been doing Cobol programming at an employer that underpays her and provides no training. She can't leave without risking her place in line for a green card. Guy's had his own share of frustrations with the H-1B and green card processes. "The uncertainty is dismal," he says. His wife has an H-4 visa, which means she can't take a job or apply for a Social Security number--one of the most-often cited frustrations for visa holders and green card applicants. Since Guy is waiting for his green card, he can't accept other job offers, and he worries that even promotions at his employer could complicate the paperwork.

While U.S. tech workers are threatened by lower-cost offshore competitors, so too are those working under H-1B and L-1 visas. In fact, since they come with the hassle of visa lotteries and green card applications, they figure to be first to go if an employer embraces offshore IT work. "Our company is outsourcing a lot of work to India, so generally speaking, it's a threat," says Jorge Larre, who works with a large multinational software vendor in the United States. Larre, who's two years into a three-year L-1 visa as a manager on a software development team, had been working for the same company in France before being assigned to the United States. He plans to renew his L-1 for three years and will likely apply for a green card. Larre says his department includes a lot of other Europeans as well as Indians because of both "the availability of labor and the cost of labor." L-1 visas are controversial in part because, unlike H-1Bs, they're not capped. Critics say they're being abused by outsourcing companies hiring out people for outsourced IT work, not using them for the intended purpose of bringing in international managers.
A green card could be in Clark's future
Jim Clark came to the United States when his employer, fuel pipeline company TransCanada, recently purchased a U.S. fuel company. He came to the United States from Canada on an L-1 visa to manage a $15 million program that includes modernizing the customer information system used by the acquired company. The rest of the 16-member team is American. Clark intended to be in the United States temporarily, but he's considering applying for his green card to work permanently in the States as TransCanada considers other U.S. acquisitions and looks to create a U.S. IT project team. For now, Clark's wife, in the country on an L-2 visa, can't work until he gets a green card, he says. Paul Nelson brings the sort of niche tech talent U.S. employers say is hard to find. Nelson, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is a research informatics architect and software developer--essentially the database expert--for the research group of pharmaceutical company Amylin. Nelson has been in the United States with a H-1B visa for more than six years, four of which included waiting for his green card, which he got about two months ago. He wound up in the immigration process by chance: Amylin doesn't set out to recruit foreign workers, but he heard about the company while attending a conference in San Diego, while he was a postdoc working for the Roslin Institute. "My view is that companies aren't giving away American jobs," he says. Rather, not enough Americans get advanced degrees, he says, and one of the biggest reasons is the cost. Nelson got his master's degree in Scotland, paid for by the U.K. government, after living a number of years there, and a company paid for his doctoral degree. Some of the most dramatic changes proposed to the H-1B system would have involved foreign-born graduates from U.S. universities' advanced degree programs. Already, there are 20,000 visas set aside for such graduates, on top of the 65,000 unrestricted H-1B visas, and some proposals called for eliminating that supplementary cap altogether. U.S. workers worry that such a move would unleash a flood of new workers, driving down salaries. It certainly would have eased what has become an increasingly tense end-of-the-year cycle for foreign-born graduates, as H-1B visas become harder to get. One example is an Indian national who graduated from a U.S. university in May 2006 with a degree in marketing and international business. Since graduating, the woman, who asked that her name not be used, has been doing data analysis. Now that her one-year training period is up, having not been selected in the H-1B lottery, she's trying to stay in the United States by registering for additional classes to get an advanced degree in mathematics. She hopes she can find another employer afterward that will sponsor her for an H-1B--and be lucky enough to have her application accepted. The chance to work in this country is part of the calculation many foreign students make in picking a U.S. university. "Parents in India spend a lot of money to get their kids educated in the U.S., and then employers will say, 'We like you, but we can't hire you,'" she says. It's part of the gamble of moving to another country in hopes of finding work. U.S. lawmakers, for now, have killed proposals to take away some of that doubt for U.S.-educated foreigners.
Return to the story: The Myths And Facts Driving The H-1B Debate
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