A few days ago, a Washington DC-based group with the name "Progressives For Immigration Reform" which has been previously dubbed "anti immigrant" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, flooded San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations and trains with ads targeting foreign tech workers, specifically those with H-1Bs.
"US tech workers! Your companies think you are expensive, undeserving, and expendable. Congress, fix H-1B laws so companies must seek and hire US workers!" says the ads.
"The idea is to make immigration work for the citizens as a whole," Kevin Lynn, executive director at Progressives for Immigration Reform, told Buzzfeed -- which also observed that Lynn's mother immigrated to the US from Ireland in 1952.
"That's what we've done for a long time, but it's not doing that now," added Lynn. Apparently, Lynn's organization paid BART $80,000 for the right to plaster over 250 panel ads in subway stations around the city as well as 100 smaller in-train ads. The ads come at a pivotal time as the deadline for filing H-1B visas this year closes on April 2.
In its response, a BART spokesperson said that the First Amendment forbade them to deny the DC group its business. "It is important for our riders to know the ads contradict our values," the spokesperson wrote in an email response. "As a transit system we can't deny the ads. They comply with guidelines allowing advertisers to express a point of view without regard to the viewpoint expressed, consistent with First Amendment freedom of speech court rulings."
The H-1B visas -- the lifeblood of the $150 billion Indian IT service industry that gets some $70 billion of its revenue from the US and is responsible for a preponderance of H-1B visa filings -- has become a favourite punching bag for President Donald Trump, who has unleashed a veritable war against the H-1B ever since he took office. An executive order last year made qualifying criteria for computer programmers stricter and announced the beginning of targeted site visits to check fraud.
A policy memo last month attempts to further clamp down on what the government says are abuses by upping the disclosure requirements considerably. In the past few decades, the visa was given for a three-year time period, renewable for another three. Post the memo, applicants will have to show that they have specific assignments in a specialty occupation, and that these assignments match the entire time period on the application. In other words, if the assignment is for one year, the visa will be issued for one year and not for the three that was previously a sure thing.
Also, shifting Indian employees from one project to another within the US is going to become supremely difficult. Plus, those thinking of transitioning from the H-1B to a greencard, as many luminaries in the tech firmament from other countries have done so far, will face considerable odds when doing so.
The real bone of contention surrounding H-1Bs is that they take away jobs unfairly from qualified US candidates. Certainly, there have been instances and firms -- many Indian -- who have tried to game the system by flooding the H-1B lottery with applications in order to up their success rates in securing visas. Also, the accusation that these H-1B hires command far cheaper salaries than their US counterparts is not unfounded. Yet, American tech companies insist that there is a serious shortfall of engineering talent in the US and H-1Bs, with special skills making up for the gap.
Can the US survive without an influx of H-1Bs? Tech companies in the US have argued that there will be an Armageddon in their industry if they are not allowed to absorb the best and brightest from around the world into their workforces. It could cripple the very fabric of innovation, they say.
Not so, says Lynn. "I don't see where innovation necessarily comes from diversity," he said to Buzzfeed. "What it comes from is having an environment where you can hire your college graduates, put them into a good paying job, and allow them to innovate."
Yet the recent history of the tech industry in the US reveals something entirely different. Both Microsoft and Google are led by Indian immigrants who migrated from H-1Bs to greencards and then to US citizenship. A study shows that in 2012, nearly 16 percent of startups in Silicon Valley were steered by an Indian co-founder even though Indians comprised just 6 percent of the region's population. The co-founder of Google came from Russia. eBay and Yahoo were started by immigrants. This is just the tiny tip of a giant iceberg.
In his piece on immigrants and Silicon Valley, Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times mentions a study by the nonpartisan think tank National Foundation for American Policy on the 87 privately held American startups that were then valued at $1 billion or more: "More than half of them were founded by one or more people from outside the United States. And 71 percent of them employed immigrants in crucial executive roles." Also, immigrants or their progeny founded more than 40 percent of companies in the Fortune 500.
John Collison, originally from Ireland and co-founder of payments startup Stripe, summed it up most poignantly in Manjoo's piece. "Look at all the leading technology companies globally, and look at how overrepresented the United States is. That's not a normal state of affairs. That's because we have managed to create this engine where the best and the brightest from around the world are coming to Silicon Valley."
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