Foreign IT techies in US face backlash

Opponents have H-1B workers stereotyped as willing to work for low wages and living in fear due to the constant threat of losing their visa.

Purnima Srinivasan is looking for work as a market researcher so she can stay in the United States after her student visa expires.

But even though she has a master's degree in marketing from Syracuse University's SI Newhouse School of Public Communications, Srinivasan gets tapped for more jobs in computer programming and engineering than in her own field.

"I don't really understand much about networking and all that, but they have an abundance of jobs and not as many people willing to fill them," said the 26-year-old native of Chennai, India, who lives with family in Southern California. "It's kind of a stereotype: 'She's Indian, therefore she can program.' But I, for one, have no knowledge of programming."

Her plight is a testament to the strong reputation among foreign programmers that has driven much of the federal government's labor immigration policy through the so-called H-1B visa program. It also is a telling example of the penchant for stereotyping that pervades the American workplace.

Much of the controversy over H-1B visas subsided last year after former President Clinton signed legislation raising the limit on the foreign worker permits. But the economic slowdown, which has caused a raft of layoffs in technology, has raised new questions about the need to import labor from other countries--and has triggered an ugly backlash against the program and its participants.

"Late last year, Congress admitted thousands of special high-tech foreign workers, even as the economy was slowing and reports of massive fraud in the program were circulating," wrote the Coalition for the Future American Worker, a Washington-based umbrella organization of professional trade organizations and immigration reform groups. "This year, many of those H-1B foreign workers are still sitting idle in the United States, while American high-tech workers are increasingly scrambling for employment."

The shortage of technology workers in the United States--whether real or perceived--could become a major issue in Congress in the fall as a growing number of politicians call for tax money to fund science and engineering education programs and lessen the reliance on foreign workers. The H-1B program may also become a target of conservative political forces opposing new programs that could make it easier for foreigners to work in the United States.

Such opposition, if successful, could undo what many believe to be a model of U.S. immigration in the new millennium. Unlike their predecessors of the last two centuries, skilled foreign professionals with H-1B visas are typically well-educated, proficient in English and generously paid. Few must flee political strife or famine in their native countries, and their new employers often welcome them to senior or "mission critical" positions.

We've achieved what we have through sheer willpower," said Tow Wang, a software developer from Milpitas, California, and a director of Immigrants Support Network, a nonprofit group formed by and for immigrants seeking US residency through employment. "Politicians know we are their future constituents. A lot, but not all, are willing to listen. Attitudes are changing. It's revolutionary."

Congress created the H-1B program as part of the 1990 Immigration Act. It started as a means of importing workers to US hospitals, universities and companies specializing in cancer research, plastics, computer programming and other occupations. By the mid-1990s, when technology surrounding the Internet caused an unprecedented economic boom, the H-1B program became a conduit for computer programmers and engineers, mainly from India and Taiwan, as demand for such professionals exceeded the number of workers in these fields produced by US universities.

Early successes created a perception among US companies that H-1B workers are more technically proficient than their American counterparts, as many have relevant work experience and advanced degrees in math, computer science and engineering. The bias toward H-1B workers is so strong that some foreigners with little or no computing or engineering skills are recruited for technical positions, such as Srinivasan.

Workplace stereotyping cuts both ways, however, especially in the volatile combination of economics and immigration.

The bulk of layoffs in the industry have hit marketing, sales, human resources and other non-technical departments, sparing many programmers and engineers--foreign or domestic. Nevertheless, in anonymous surveys imbued with racial undertones, Americans malign H-1B visa workers as job thieves willing to work for lower wages and driving down the salary scales at US companies.

The law states that H-1B workers must be paid at least the median wage in their given job category when hired through the program. But many say they ask for raises less frequently and are more reluctant to make waves than their American co-workers are out of fear that their work permits will be revoked--an acquiescence that H-1B opponents say eventually stunts salary growth across the board at higher ranks.

"There was always an unwillingness to speak out," said a 31-year-old software engineer in Menlo Park, California, who has a permanent green card and did not want his name used. "You didn't want to make too much noise in the company. They're sponsoring you, and you don't want to jeopardize that. If for any reason your boss starts to see you as a liability, you could lose it. You want to be the model employee."

Whatever the reason, demand for H-1B workers continues to rise despite the economic slowdown. In the first eight months of fiscal 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization Service received 224,876 H-1B applications. That is a 12.5 percent increase from the same period in fiscal 2000, when it received a record 199,836 H-1B requests.

The INS approved 117,000 H-1B applications from October, the beginning of the government's fiscal year, to May 23. It had a backlog of at least 40,000 applications waiting for approval, INS spokeswoman Eyleen Schmidt said. The program will probably fill all 195,000 spots available for fiscal 2001 before the year ends in late September.

"Even with reports of large-scale layoffs in the tech industry, unemployment rates in the U.S. are still relatively low. There are still tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of jobs that companies cannot fill due to a lack of available American workers," said Robert C Meltzer, president of VisaNow.com, a software company that helps automate processing and claims associated with H-1B visas. "Not just in the IT industry, but in aerospace, biotech, engineering and health care--all of these sectors look to hire H-1B workers when the domestic talent pool runs dry."

No plans to stop hiring
The largest employers in high technology--including computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard and chipmaker Intel--say they have no plans to stop hiring H-1B programmers. Executives note that they hire H-1B workers specifically because they cannot find an American who is equally suited for the job.

It is this reasoning that has raised ire among opponents to the program, who argue that US companies are hiring foreign workers because they will work for lower wages and generally do not fight management over workplace rights.

John M Miano organized the Summit, N J-based Programmers Guild in 1998 to curtail the number of H-1B visas granted. His group and the American Engineering Association are circulating an online petition urging Congress to abolish H-1B visas.

"Over the past ten years, hundreds of thousands of American computer programmers, scientists, engineers and other technical professionals have been laid off by their employers," the petition reads, "many to see their jobs replaced by foreign labor."

Rep Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration and claims, is one of the most outspoken enemies of H-1B visas in Washington. He says it encourages companies to hire foreigners instead of to train Americans for the same jobs.

"It does not require all but a small handful of firms to make good-faith efforts to recruit US workers before hiring foreign workers," he said to Congress during debates on the American Competitiveness bill. "It allows all but a small handful of firms to lay off American workers and replace American workers with foreign workers."

Others say the program is not only overused but also abused abroad. In fact, a recent State Department audit found widespread H-1B fraud at the consular office in Chennai, which issues more H-1B visas than anywhere else in the world. The cursory audit, which was phased out because of budgetary restrictions, found that numerous applicants claimed false academic degrees and exaggerated professional experience.

Among the US population, meanwhile, the number of students graduating with computer science degrees dropped from 45,000 in 1986 to 24,000 in 2000. The United States has slipped behind England and South Korea in the percentage of the population with science or engineering degrees.

At the New Democrat Network's fifth annual retreat in San Francisco last month, politicians warned that the tech job crunch threatens to end America's half-century reign as the global tech hub. Economist and Stanford University professor Paul Romer is drafting a proposal with Sen Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., that calls for US$100 million in incentives for universities that graduate engineering and science students.

Members of the New Democrat Network did not explicitly discuss the ethnic profile of H-1B visa workers, but some of their remarks were reminiscent of post-war hostility that remains surprisingly strong today, as seen in anti-Asian sentiments related to the espionage accusations against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee and the US-China spy plane standoff earlier this year. When foreigners' visas expire and they return to their native countries, politicians and business executives said at the conference, they could take their ideas, research and business plans with them.

Although few H-1B holders report overt discrimination, some say they have experienced subtle but tangible forms of bias in the workplace. American bosses rarely question their ability to do programming and engineering tasks, but H-1B workers say they face formidable hurdles when trying to branch out of technical positions and move into sales or human resources.

"I am not aware of any significant discrimination on basis of race or culture," said an Indian-born manager at a Foster City, California-based technology company who received an MBA at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, India. "I do, however, see a clear distinction being made on educational background and country of origin.

"In spite of my being from a business school which is among the top five in Asia and perhaps being as intellectually capable as any American B-schooler in terms of competencies, preference is given to Americans in this arena," the manager said. "This I speak from personal experience."

Such issues have inspired H-1B workers to join ranks and accumulate considerable political clout in a relatively short time. They owe at least part of their success to cohesive geography--often having been clustered in such influential regions as California's Silicon Valley and suburban Washington, D C--and to adopt use of the Internet as a means of communication that has united communities in the United States with those in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

"We have problems. We need to speak out--even more than we already do," said Murali Krishna Devarakonda, a tech worker from Santa Clara, California, and another director of the 21,000-member Immigrants Support Network. "The United States has a great system here--a place where even immigrants have a voice. We've been silent for far too long, and now we're ready to raise our voice."

Their voice could easily become a deafening roar. According to government estimates, there are nearly half a million H-1B workers living in the United States. During the late 1990s, the booming economy lured about 1 million legal immigrants each year to the United States, many of them from India and Taiwan and on H-1B visas. (Self-employed entrepreneurs, transferred executives and other foreigners receive different visas.)

In one of his last acts as president, Bill Clinton in October passed the American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act. With strong support from tech business groups such as TechNet and the Information Technology Association of America, the act increased the limit of H-1B visas granted, from 115,000 to 195,000 per year. In 1998, the limit was 65,000.

New administration
Those numbers could again come under scrutiny as tensions over immigration policy intensify with new policies proposed by the Bush administration. In early July, a White House administration task force, led by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, began leaking details of a plan to allow undocumented workers to stay in the United States through a multi-staged process that could confer "legal status" upon them.

The Bush administration, which has close ties to Mexican President Vicente Fox, said the program would make it easier for immigrants to become citizens. Critics immediately blasted the plan, claiming that it would be the biggest change to US immigration policy in 15 years.

Although few politicians on either side brought up the H-1B debate in the most recent round of immigration salvos, many visa holders are concerned that Washington conservatives will reverse the success they have achieved. They also worry that an anti-immigration backlash could foil new directives to speed the visa process and make the INS less bureaucratic.

"Finding help or even thinking of (job) security is a remote thing," said a 28-year-old Indian H-1B worker, a consultant in enterprise software who has an MBA and degrees in computer systems management. "I have had quite a few ups and downs and never get to know who is the right authority to reach out for help."

Increasingly, American law firms are opening online divisions to handle the potentially lucrative contracts of workers looking for attorneys to handle issues associated with visas.

Jon Velie, an immigration lawyer with Velie & Velie of Norman, Okla, operates OnlineVisas.com for prospective workers abroad. In January, shortly after he opened the site, he took in US$7,500 for processing and legal fees from online customers. In February, he made US$26,000. In March, he made US$35,000. In April, he made US$50,000.

"I've represented people from Colombia, Nepal, China, and lots of Indians, Pakistanis and Persians," Velie said. "We're getting hit from every continent, excluding Antarctica--Israel, Sweden, Australia, New Zealand. These people know technology and feel comfortable handling the processing and communicating online. It only makes it easier for them."

And once they are here, many find that the red tape was well worth enduring. At least three out of four H-1B workers apply to stay past the six-year H-1B extended limit, and half receive green cards. They often go on to become naturalized US citizens, according to the INS.

Many are fervently patriotic about their newly adopted land and bring spouses and family members to join them. To that extent, workers say, they are merely a more educated, mobile and technologically savvy example of the kind of immigration that founded the United States.

"I must say I enjoyed every minute I lived on US soil," said Deepak Solomon Arulraj, a 28-year-old software engineer from Chennai. Arulraj has a master's degree in electrical and electronics engineering from Tennessee State University and programmed for a Detroit-area contract firm. He returned to India when his contract agency stopped paying his wages.

"I hope to make it back some day!" Arulraj gushed in an email. "You guys have been born into a land that flows with milk and honey. God has definitely blessed the work of your forefathers."

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