U.S. Visa Limits Hit Indian Workers

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 6, 2009

MUMBAI -- With his master's degree in electrical engineering at North Carolina State University almost complete, Ravi, 24, received a promising job offer from a technology firm. He called his parents back in India, happy that he was on track for an H-1B work visa, which is seen as a steppingstone to U.S. citizenship.

But just before Thanksgiving, Ravi got a call from his future employer.

"They told me that because of the economic downturn they couldn't hire me in anticipation of tougher times ahead. They were laying off other American employees, and cutting my job would be a proactive measure," said Ravi, who gave only his first name because he did not want his job prospects affected. "I do feel bad for anyone losing a job, whether it's an American or an H-1B foreign worker. But for foreign students, if we don't get a job, we have to go back to our home countries. When I talk to my parents, they tell me not to worry, to just come home. But I had really hoped to stay."

As the U.S. economy slows, highly skilled foreign professionals seeking work under various visa programs are finding it harder to get jobs. President Obama's stimulus package stops U.S. companies, largely in banking and financial services, that take federal bailout money from hiring H-1B visa holders for two years if they have laid off American workers in the previous six months. The administration has vowed to tighten restrictions and step up oversight of all work visa applications.

The H-1B program brings in about 85,000 skilled foreign workers every year, ostensibly to fill jobs that U.S. workers cannot or will not do. But some companies in the science and technology fields, afraid of a backlash over hiring foreign professionals rather than American ones, are rescinding job offers. Analysts say it is part of a wave of mounting anger in the United States over work visas, especially at a time when more than half a million Americans are being laid off every month.

"Hiring H-1B visa holders has become as toxic as giving out corporate bonuses," said Vivek Wadhwa, a Duke University professor and Harvard University research fellow.

The United States is not the only nation making it more difficult for foreigners to get work. Persian Gulf countries have reduced the number of work visas they offer, forcing unemployed Indians to return home. Britain has begun to review its immigration policies to determine whether there should be more restrictions on the types of workers who can obtain visas.

"This is part of the broader story of the unwinding of globalization in the current economic crisis. As goods have moved more freely around the world, so did people, but now that's ending," said Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book "The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11."

The stimulus bill contained the Employ American Workers Act, which was sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.). They say that they are worried that laid-off Americans struggling to find work are being displaced by foreign junior investment analysts, computer programmers and corporate lawyers who accept a fraction of the pay commanded by Americans.

"This H-1B program is a sweetheart deal for employers, in many instances, to be able to gain cheap labor from abroad," Sanders, the son of a Polish immigrant, said in a telephone interview. "Immigration made this country great. But ask those American laid-off workers if they want $40,000-a-year engineers from Russia or India taking the place of an American engineer who would earn $80,000 a year. I don't think anyone is going to tell me with a straight face that they can't find some of that American talent right here on the unemployment lines."

During the past several months, the largest banks in the United States have announced 100,000 job cuts, Sanders said. Those same banks, which are receiving $150 billion in a taxpayer-funded bailout package, requested visas for more than 21,800 foreign workers over the past six years for positions such as senior vice presidents, corporate lawyers and human resources specialists, Sanders said, citing an Associated Press review of visa applications that the banks filed with the Labor Department.

As the economy worsened last year and employees were laid off, the number of visas sought by the dozen banks in the AP analysis increased by nearly a third, from 3,258 in fiscal 2007 to 4,163 in fiscal 2008.

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