Work visa woes

'You live in the shadows': Anxious Indians in Silicon Valley consider options after H-1B reforms

Donald Trump's immigration initiatives have cast uncertainty over the lives of many South Asian tech professionals in the US.

A young software engineer who grew up in the outskirts of Mumbai now lives in a cozy apartment in Silicon Valley. She works for an East Coast company that provides labour to a California-based multinational, and is currently on an H-1B visa – the much-coveted non-immigrant work visa granted via lottery. Her visa expires in a few months. She was all set to apply for a new one under the premium processing scheme that expedites the process, only to hear that the scheme has been suspended for a period of six months.

This is one of a barrage of recent regulations aimed directly at H-1B visas. On Monday, a US Citizenship and Immigration Services news release spoke of targeted site visits to H-1B petitioners and workplaces that employ a large number of H-1B visa-holders in order to detect cases of immigration fraud. Three days earlier, it had issued a vaguely-worded memorandum about computer programming not qualifying as a “specialty occupation”, the sort that would merit an H-1B visa. Programmers must now furnish other evidence to prove they have specialised skill sets.

“I’m not quite sure what the memorandum means by ‘computer programmer’,” said the software engineer from Mumbai who did not wish to be identified, adding that computer programming is a part of her job, as it is for a large share of techies in the Valley. She feels such a move would merely push companies to redesignate their employees with titles that mask their role as computer programmers.

Many jobs in the technology industry require an individual to perform diverse roles, which could include computer programming as well as, for instance, software development, said Olivia Lee, chair of the Northern California chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. As an immigration lawyer, she has witnessed, first-hand, the heightened sense of anxiety over H-1B visas, some of which she believes is valid. She hastened to add, though, that many of the proposed measures have been introduced in the past by earlier administrations. This is not the first time premium processing has been suspended. Site visits for employers reliant on H-1B visa-holders is not new, either. And computer programmers were in for scrutiny more than a decade ago. But the current sense of panic over the recent regulations has much to do with new President Donald Trump’s election campaign, which specifically attacked immigrants.

In addition to xenophobic election promises such as a wall between the United States and Mexico and a ban on Muslims, Trump’s diktats as president have done little to abate hostility towards migrants. His government has, in less than a hundred days, issued a temporary travel ban on people from seven Muslim countries, called for laptops to be checked in while flying to the United States from certain (largely Muslim) countries, and proposed a rollback on welfare schemes for immigrants. His views on the H-1B visa are prone to routine changes. While on the one hand slamming the H-1B visa process for bringing in cheap foreign labour that undercuts American wages, he has also spoken of the need to retain talented foreign workers in Silicon Valley after they graduate from top American universities. Trump has personally admitted to exploiting the H-1B scheme as a businessman. “I know the H-1B very well. And it’s something that I, frankly, use, and I shouldn’t be allowed to use it,” he said at a Republican debate on CNN.

Uncertainty prevails

The Mumbai software engineer is not immune to the environment of uncertainty created by the weird cocktail of racism, childishness and petulance that marks the Trump regime. Barring the suspension of premium processing, none of the current slew of measures aimed at tightening the H-1B visa process directly affects her, yet she’s left with a vague sense of anxiety over the possibility of future measures that could jeopardise her stay in the United States. Her fear may not be completely unfounded in a climate where bombastic new orders are passed on an hourly basis. She and her husband have talked of the possibility of having to return to India. While both of them are from Mumbai, India’s technology industry is largely concentrated in cities like Bengaluru and Pune. So a move back to India wouldn’t quite be a move home.

Another immigrant who works for a popular technology firm and is in the queue for an H-1B visa in the current application cycle says the Trump administration’s veiled attack on the scheme makes him feel very uncertain about the future. “I now feel I’ve got to be open to returning to India,” he said. “From the point of view of knowledge and skills, I need to be abreast [of] all the latest developments in India so that I will be fully employable there. I am now focusing on two countries instead of one.” In a way, this has meant that he can’t fully engage with America. “I feel there’s an expiry date to my stay in America that I’m not aware of,” he added.

He, like many others, is afraid that even if he does end up getting the H-1B visa, his wife may not be allowed to work. While the Barack Obama administration worked towards allowing the spouses of H-1B visa-holders to work in the United States, the Trump administration is looking to reverse the decision. A news report talks of court documents filed by the government this week, seeking to reconsider the rights of a spouse to work.

“It’s not a great feeling to think that I have a chance to work in Silicon Valley while my wife is consigned to the house,” he said. “If that happens, I may consider returning to India. Not only do I think it unjust for my wife to have to give up on her career, but I find it monetarily unsustainable to live in the US on a single income when compared with a double income back home in India.”

Many Indian immigrants with school-going children are suddenly feeling the need to ensure their children are fluent in Hindi as well as regional languages such as Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. Without a knowledge of Indian languages, they are worried their children will have a tough time living in India and integrating into the school system.

“You live in the shadows, always afraid that you will have to leave the country. You spend the most productive years of your life here, and then, all of a sudden, you’re uprooted. You’ve suddenly got to pack your bags and go back home,” said Rishi Bhilawadikar, producer and screen-writer of the independent film For Here or To Go?. The film, currently playing in American theatres, deals with his own experience with a sluggish visa-processing system that had him stuck in limbo. At a time when there is enough anxiety already associated with H-1B visas, he feels the new regulations further fuel the unease.

Bhilawadikar made the film because he felt the enormous contribution of Indians to the technology industry in the United States has gone virtually unnoticed. “Not only have Indians accomplished a great deal in America but they have also invested back home in India,” he said.

Anxiety of a very different sort is being felt in India. An engineer in Bengaluru is a trifle uneasy at the thought of a large number of Indian techies in the United States returning home, as it would result in a sudden increase in competition for limited jobs.

Indians corner the lion's share of H-1B visas. (Image credit: Reuters)
Indians corner the lion's share of H-1B visas. (Image credit: Reuters)

It’s not about curbing abuse

Meanwhile, in America, there have been cases of visa fraud, with Indians devising numerous ways to circumvent rules in order to get hold of a visa. Indians have often been accused of “gaming the system”. But Bilawadikar finds it unfair to imagine that an individual could game the system, particularly one with stringent screening processes. “I don’t think a bunch of Indians suddenly got together and began planning to con America,” he said. “The industry mushrooming around H-1B visas is because of the high demand for cheaper labour created by American companies as a way of cutting costs and maximising profits. Why should the individual applying for a visa have to bear the brunt of this?”

When it comes to Indian workers in the US, there is a class divide of sorts. Some Indians with higher educational qualifications resent being lumped with everybody else when it comes to the H-1B lottery. For instance, a software engineer and someone with a short-term coding degree will find themselves together in the visa queue. Many complain that the H-1B is for skilled workers, and yet people with “lower-level jobs” are also eligible for the visa. “Indians are concerned about status,” said Rohit Chopra, associate professor at Santa Clara University, California. “Those from Ivy League colleges look down on other workers. But their lack of formal qualifications does not necessarily make them less skilled.”

In what may seem surprising, a section of Indians in California are happy that the authorities want to exclude entry-level computer programming jobs from qualifying for the visa. Given that the H-1B visa is allotted via a lottery, and hugely over-subscribed, decreasing the number of applicants will increase the chances of getting the visa for those who are eligible to apply for it. Some feel the new H-1B reforms will curb abuse so that only the “more deserving” eventually get the visa. However, analysing the new H-1B rules in isolation from the current political climate against immigration would call for a willful suspension of disbelief.

While it’s obvious that the abuse of the visa system needs to be curbed, Chopra points to existing laws already in place to curb malpractice that simply need to be implemented. “Laws are abused in all fields. Abuse is prevalent in Wall Street as well as in sectors like energy, and yet nobody’s talking of tightening regulations in those sectors,” he said.

The recent US Citizenship and Immigration Services release on curbing visa fraud through targeted site visits of H-1B-dependent employers also authorises Americans and migrants to complain of any instance of visa abuse. “Lay-offs happen all the time in American companies and if an Indian employer were to lay off an American, that person could claim he was being discriminated against,” said Chopra.

He feels the new rules are in sync with the alt-right worldview prevalent in the Trump administration that America belongs to white Americans. In the case of the H-1B, Chopra feels the administration has very clearly targeted Indians, who obtain a lion’s share of the visas. After all, last year, Stephen Bannon, a white supremacist and Trump’s chief campaign strategist, was famously quoted saying America’s engineering schools were full of people from South Asia and East Asia who were here to take American jobs. Bannon has also suggested that there are too many Asian chief executive officers in Silicon Valley. Chopra sees the new measures as a clear project to restore what the alt-right sees as the white man’s loss of prestige. The sentiment is echoed in the release on visa abuse, which talks of putting America first, calling on companies not to hire H-1B visa-holders in place of “qualified” and “deserving Americans”. The department of justice issued a similar news release earlier this week.

Chopra finds the left-wing protectionism implicit in the sentiment ironic, given that America has long preached laissez-faire capitalism and free markets to the rest of the world.

The proposed legislation on H-1B calls for more than doubling minimum wages, currently at $60,000 a year. Indian outsourcing companies are often held responsible for hiring Indian workers at minimum wages, far below market salaries. Once again, Chopra points to the irony of a capitalist economy under a Republican government calling for wage regulation, when there is no such thing as standard wages. He believes there is not enough focus on the wealth American companies accrue by hiring H-1B visa-holders on a lower salary.

The other side of the story

While companies have been accused of using H-1B visas to ship low-paid Indian employees to the United States and undercut American wages, a study by the University of California, Davis, shows that the inflow of foreign science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers, made possible by the H-1B visa, actually increases the overall wage growth of a city. Aimed at studying the impact of these workers on the productivity of American workers between 1990 and 2010, the study showed that a one percentage point increase in the foreign workers’ share of a city’s total employment increased the wage growth of native college-educated labour by seven to eight percentage points and that of non-college-educated natives by three to four percentage points. According to the study, these foreign workers spurred economic growth and increased productivity.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin addresses company workers at a protest against the Trump regime's immigration ban in January. (Image credit: YouTube)
Google co-founder Sergey Brin addresses company workers at a protest against the Trump regime's immigration ban in January. (Image credit: YouTube)

The contribution of these workers, both to the economy as well as to the social and cultural diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area, is not lost on the technology industry. Chief executive officers and founders of some of the world’s largest companies have thrown their lot behind the immigrant workforce and are part of the groundswell of voices taking on the Trump administration. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was part of the protest against Trump’s immigration order at the San Francisco airport in January. Some of the biggest names in the industry, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have come together to create a platform called FWD.US to mobilize politically for immigration reforms. Employees at firms grappling with H-1B visas talk of the empathy their colleagues offer them and the support they have received from their companies. The sentiment in California is in sync with its voting pattern; a dark blue state that largely voted for the Democrats.

Indians in the Bay Area, in queue for H-1B visas, find themselves in a rather peculiar situation. They live in a country that voted in a conservative president with a dim view of immigration, but are in a staunchly liberal state that is willing to fight for their rights.

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