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Tech Companies’ Push to Expand Skilled Worker Visas Rankles Critics

| March 22, 2013
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by Sam Harnett

Technology companies in California say they can’t find enough U.S. programmers to fill jobs. So they’re pushing hard for I-Squared, the Immigration Innovation Act, in the U.S. Senate that could more than triple the number of visas for high-skilled foreign workers from 85,000 a year to as many as 300,000. But some in the industry fear expanding the visa program would allow companies to replace more American workers with foreigners like Kriti Bajaj.

Kriti Bajaj hopes to get hired on an H-1B visa after attending App Academy, an intensive coding course. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Kriti Bajaj hopes to get hired on an H-1B visa after attending App Academy, an intensive coding course. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Bajaj graduated from Stanford University with a degree in biology. Originally from India, she decided to head home after finishing school and pursue a PhD. But Bajaj soon realized she’d made a big mistake. Academia just wasn’t for her.

“There were too many unknowns,” she said, “Nothing was working. I was in this dark little cell in the middle of nowhere.”

Bajaj decided to return to the Bay Area and try to restart her life as a computer programmer. She came back on a tourist visa, which meant that she had just 90 days to learn how to program and get hired as a web developer. That led her to App Academy — one of many new, intensive coding camps that teaches web development from scratch. The course is nine-weeks long, just right for Bajaj.

Bajaj hopes the skills she’s learning at App Academy will help her get hired on an H-1B, the visa for skilled foreign workers. But she’s fighting the clock: the visas start getting allotted on April 1st and they can run out fast. If Bajaj doesn’t get a job offer before then she’ll have to return to India and wait another year to apply. Some say that if she does succeed in getting an H-1B, she’ll be robbing a job from an American.

“If she’s being hired for an H-1B visa based on nine weeks of programming work – Are you kidding me? – then it’s an abuse of the visa,” said Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis.

Matloff claims companies use H-1B visas to replace older U.S. programmers with younger, cheaper foreigners like Bajaj.

“The abuse is widespread across the board,” he said. “Everybody from the mainstream, household-name firms are abusing the program…. The central issue is wage and mobility.”

Matloff argues that since employers sponsor workers for H-1Bs, it’s tricky for foreigners to negotiate higher salaries or switch jobs. They effectively get handcuffed to their employer at lower wages. That’s why businesses want more H-1Bs, Matloff says. But tech companies have a different story.

The lobbying firm TechNet got 100 technology companies to sign a letter to President Obama and Congress, urging them to expand the H-1B program. Dan Turrentine, a vice president at TechNet, says the companies’ main complaint is that they can’t find enough American employees to fill their job openings. The cap of 85,000 H-1Bs a year hasn’t kept up with the demand for skilled tech workers. “That cap was set back in the ‘90s,” said Turrentine, “when the economy was much less dependent on technology.”

Companies like Facebook, Google, and Hewlett-Packard all signed the letter. But the truth is, most H-1B holders aren’t found at these companies. And they aren’t at start-ups either.

Nearly half work at places like Infosys and Wipro – the multi-national information technology workhorses that churn out the unglamorous connective tissue of all modern business: boilerplate coding, user support and network maintenance. These businesses place workers in their U.S. offices on H-1Bs to improve the interface between their American client companies and their vast workforces in India.

Critics say the H-1B program has thus become a vehicle for global I.T. firms to outsource tech work that used to be done in the United States.

Frustration with the program doesn’t just come from professors like Matloff, or from older, out-of-work American programmers. It can also be heard from H-1B holders themselves, including Ardit Bajraktari. The 32-year-old from Albania says participating in the visa program feels like indentured servitude.

Bajraktari is a mobile developer who has worked in Silicon Valley for a decade. He’s been programming phones since the early 2000s, years before the first iPhone hit the market. Like many programmers in the Bay Area, Bajraktari has hopped around, working at places like MobiTV, Yammer and Amazon.

“If you want to keep your skill set up to date,” he said, “you have to move companies.”
But every time Bajraktari switches jobs, he loses his H-1B visa sponsorship and risks deportation.

“It’s like you have a sword on your neck,” he said. “You have to find a job.”

Bajraktari came to the United States at 17 and graduated from Radford University in Virginia. Ever since he started working, a decade ago, Bajraktari has been trying to get a green card, the document granting legal permanent residence. Without it, he said, he will always feel the threat of that sword—deportation. With each new job, though, he must persuade the employer to petition for a green card for him.

Bajraktari said his worst green card experience was at Amazon. He says the company promised him a visa during the job negotiations, which motivated him to take the position. Then, he says, it took nearly two years to start moving on the paperwork. It reminded Bajraktari of being in Albania under communism.

“To make things move forward you have to threaten your company that you’re not going to work anymore,” he said. “It becomes a weird, weird situation.”

The I-Squared bill now in the Senate has some provisions to address the challenges of H-1B job mobility. It would give employees a 60-day grace period between positions. But employers would still control the green card process. If the government really wants to stop companies from abusing H-1B visas Bajraktari says, it should give workers some control over their green card applications.

The Senate continues to debate what to do with the H-1B visa, and the proposals in the I-Squared bill are also being considered by a bi-partisan group of senators preparing comprehensive immigration legislation.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the bi-partisan group, has been urging reforms to address the outsourcing issue and compel companies to search first for American workers. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has been pushing to ensure that H-1B employees are paid competitive wages. The two have worked together in the past to try and reform the H-1B program. Whether the final agreement this time will contain these provisions remains to be seen.

While the deliberations proceed in Washington, Bajraktari keeps chasing a green card. He says he’d like to found his own company – the Silicon Valley start-up dream. But that’s nearly impossible on an H-1B. Another proposal in the Senate would offer start-up visas and green cards to entrepreneurs. If enacted, that could work for Bajraktari. In the meantime, he’s still depending on an employer to sponsor him for permanent residency. Only then would he have the same job freedoms as his U.S. colleagues.

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Category: Business and Finance, Federal Government, Government, Immigration, International, Labor, San Francisco, San Jose

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  • http://www.facebook.com/virgil.bierschwale Virgil Bierschwale

    Interesting,

    I’ve been programming for 20 years.

    currently teaching myself php with the introduction of BuriedWhere.com where I hope to hire a bunch of unemployed developers like myself.

    She has 9 weeks and she gets interviewed?

    I have 1,040 weeks and I can’t buy an interview.

    For others in my boat, please tell your story at Keep America At Work so we can put an end to this game of musical countries that is destroying opportunity in America.

    • Nicholas

      It ain’t how many weeks you worked, its how much you can do! Case in point, none of the big company founders like Microsoft, Apple, FB have college degrees. Those who complain that they are being left out have themselves to blame. However, human beings rarely blame themselves for their misfortunes.

      • FastForwardAfter

        It’s his own fault he is not a foreigner needing an H-1B indentured sponsorship.

  • twinsfan1100

    Work visa abuse is rampant and pervasive. In fact, when skills shortages exist, they are engineered by the same Corporate America that makes the complaints.

    Unlike any other profession, US STEM workers, especially ones involved with software, are constantly retraining and retooling in emerging technologies because college cannot train you for technology not yet created.

    One technology for which corporate America says there is a shortage, is Websphere, a technology recently purchased by IBM. Training is not that difficult, technically. Training only requires five weeks of training, but IBM charges US STEM workers $15,000. However if you live in India, IBM will train you for free and pay you to learn. Once trained, IBM will ship you to the US on one of the work visas that Congress has granted Corporate America to do a job that could have been performed by a US STEM worker. IBM will bill their client for well over $150 per hour and pay their indentured servant around $30/hour. Without engineering the shortage in Websphere, IBM would not be able invoice their client such a huge rate.

    Again, this situation would not exist if it were not for the corporate SOCKPUPPETS in the White House and Congress that are printing up visas that are destroying the careers of US STEM workers all across America.

    • http://www.facebook.com/virgil.bierschwale Virgil Bierschwale

      amen

  • FreeUSA

    Seems like the Professor Matloff sees value only in hours of coding experience (making of a code monkey) and not the domain knowledge that one gains after years of in-depth research.

    That is unfortunate particularly, coming from a PhD in Math who fitted his own skills to work in Computer Science and now serving as an expert on use of foreign “talent” in US Computer Industry.

    With all due respect Professor Matloff, an “immigration policy expert” like yourself can use a little perspective and maybe a reality check in what is needed to get the work done.

    • Tim_Rothchild

      you know what, I’ll put my 20 years of hard IT experience up against a new grad PhD any day. And for sure, I’ll bury an H1b job robber from india with an indian advanced degree in about 5 minutes. And besides, it’s not about what your degree is in, it’s what you are getting hired to do, and we have oodles and oodles of junior developers made in the U.S.A., so we don’t need any more H1b replacement workers, PhD or not…

  • Tim_Rothchild

    9 weeks, 9 months, what difference does it make. Almost every H1b that comes here is over very, very limited experience – they are all in their mid-20′s, how can they be the “best and brightest” ??? And if they are, how come they work for so cheap when they get here ? None of it makes sense. H1b is sick and broken, and the only parties that are rooting for it at this point are a) the job robbers that yearn to come here, b) companies like Tata and CrapGemini that can’t wait to bring them to mark them up and palm them off on some client company. Every STEM worker is wise to the H1b/L1/B1 fraud, who doesn’t know about it by now ????

  • Tim_Rothchild

    of course companies claim “there isn’t any talent” in the U.S. And oil companies claim it’s unfair to not be able to dump waste in rivers, and manufacturers thinks it’s unfair to not be able to work children from sun up to sunrise, and Walmart thinks minimum wage should be 50-cents an hour….is that how we set policy now these days in America ?

  • Tim_Rothchild

    I can’t believe that someone who has a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, can’t find a way to practice her discipline in some country in the world, and has to resort to becoming a junior programmer. The example in this story, would not be considered to be the “best and brightest”…

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.nevtelen John Nevtelen

    Just wondering if a statistic cited here is just an oft repeated factoid.
    ALL computer occupations are only about a little half of all H-1b visas issued. Many computer occupation H-1bs go to the large American tech firms that are doing the lobbying (Microsoft, Google, HP, etc), many to American universities and nonprofits as visiting faculty and postdocs, some to firms whose main business is not tech or IT, some to smaller American tech firms, and even some to state/local governments.
    SO, how can it be true that “nearly half work at places like Infosys and Wipro”??

    Also, it was easy to find more on Kriti Bajaj’s credentials on Linkedin. First is a little odd to use the example of someone who only WANTS an H-1b as an example of a low qualified person obtaining one. But if she does obtain one, I expect that her master’s degree from Stanford doing very computer and math intensive bioinformatics will have more to do with it than the 9-week course she is taking to top it off.