The visa program, created in 1990 to allow highly trained professionals to work on specific projects in the United States, has become a contentious element of the comprehensive immigration reform bill the Senate approved Thursday. The bipartisan legislation would increase the annual cap on the visas from 65,000 to 110,000, and possibly up to 180,000 per year, depending on demand and the U.S. unemployment level.
The bill also seeks to place new restrictions on companies that make heavy use of H-1B visas.
Critics of the program say the visas, which in India are used mainly by IT engineers, allow foreigners to take jobs from Americans. And while the documents are valid for just three years and can be extended to a maximum of only six, many who get them find legal ways to stay longer in the United States.
Tech companies and other H-1B advocates say that there are not enough engineers in the United States and that the foreign workers who use the visas are desperately needed to keep U.S. companies competitive.
Kumar, who lives in the high-tech hub of Bangalore, in southern India, says he has the skill to test software not just for slot machines, but also for ATMs and ticket-vending machines.
“Americans with college degrees do not want to do such work and consider it low-grade,” Kumar said. “Many of my classmates are already there on H-1B visas. I, too, want to go there, earn lots of dollars and return.”
In India, H-1B visas have become almost synonymous with the IT boom of the past two decades; for IT engineers here, they are seen as a key to career growth, social prestige and good salaries.
“It fills the parents with pride to say, ‘My son or daughter is in the U.S.’ It enhances their social respectability,” said Purnima Nagaraja, a psychiatrist practicing in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. “The dollar salary they earn is sent back to the families to buy farmland, new homes and pay off loans.”
A change of plans
While many Indians working in the United States are sent by Indian tech companies, some also take Kumar’s route to gain access to the U.S. job market — an American consulting firm helped place him with a U.S. company and applied for a visa on his behalf.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received about 124,000 H-1B applications this year in just the first week after the process opened. In April, Kumar’s was one of the 65,000 picked in a computerized lottery draw.
The first year or so in the United States can be difficult, according to interviews with several engineers, IT managers and analysts, as new arrivals from India struggle to adjust to loneliness and American food and culture. Many also face grueling double shifts, working with their U.S. managers during the day and online with their Indian colleagues late into the night, on aspects of the work that are done in India.
But while many say they resolved to return to India after a few years, eager to serve their parents and their country, that often changes.
Three or four years after they arrive in the United States, some engineers find themselves drawn to the American dream — the comfort, opportunities, salaries and infrastructure. They negotiate with their employers for green card sponsorship — often applying pressure by flaunting offers from other U.S. firms or consultancies for a job and permanent residence.
It puts the employers in a “very helpless situation,” said SubbaRaju Pericherla, founder of Cross Borders, a consulting firm that advises companies on H-1B visa compliance rules. “If they leave, the project would suffer,” he said of the employees. Some companies relent and help their employees apply for a green card; others offer a raise.
“Sometimes I had to cajole the engineers to stay on just for a few more months until the new H-1B quota opens,” Pericherla said.
U.S. law also allows the transfer of H-1B visas to other companies, making the engineers more mobile and increasing their bargaining leverage for green card sponsorship.
“Some tech companies here find it cheaper and easier to harvest the existing pool of workers who already have the H-1B visa and are in the United States,” said Michael Wildes, a New York-based immigration lawyer. “They don’t have to wait for new visa approvals.”
Engineers say they face hard career choices when their U.S. work permits are about to expire.
“The challenge they face is this: ‘If I return to India, my work profile will be scaled down,’ ” said Venkat Medapati, 30, who went to the United States with an H-1B visa in 2006. When his visa expired, he went to a university to get a business management degree and now works for an e-
commerce company in California. “I am on a different growth trajectory here, but in India, I will be one of the many.”
Nagaraja, the Hyderabad psychiatrist, said many of her patients are the lonely, aging parents of engineers in the United States who have been left to fend for themselves, some in nursing homes, breaking the traditional system in which children look after their parents.
But Indians who go home also face challenges.
“Things are so unpredictable and disorganized here that it tests my patience,” said Venugopal Murthi, 39, who returned in 2011 after being in the United States for 12 years.
Murthi left India with an H-1B visa in 1999, acquired a green card and is now a naturalized U.S. citizen, running a start-up design company in Hyderabad. “I have parents to take care of. I am their only son,” he explained.
But, he added, he has a strong support system and doesn’t have to worry about paying rent. “I can take more risks with my business in India,” Murthi said.
Kumar is assessing his risk these days. He has paid the U.S. consulting company more than $5,000 to handle the visa application process. He says he has a 50-50 chance of cracking the visa interview, which has become far stricter in the past three years because of irregularities in the way a few consulting firms maintained their files about engineers’ employment status.
“If you want to win the jackpot, you have to play every day for five years on a slot machine,” Kumar said, laughing. “Going to the U.S. is like hitting the jackpot. I have been dreaming about it daily for the last four years.”