H-1B at 20: How the 'tech worker visa' is remaking IT in America

The H-1B visa program turns 20 years old this month. Not everyone in IT is saying 'Best Wishes.'

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Foreign students, particularly from top-tier universities, are being employed at large firms. At Carnegie Mellon University, for instance, Intel has six OPT extension students working for it; Oracle has eight students.

But the university that has the largest number of students who applied for OPT extensions is a relatively small one. Students at Stratford University in Falls Church, Va., accounted for 730 OPT extensions in 2009 alone, and many of the companies employing them are IT consulting and services firms, often with offices in India.

Stratford has an enrollment of about 2,000 full-time students, with about 40% in computer-science-related programs. Most of the foreign students are in the master's program and make up about three-fourths of the enrollment, according to university President Richard Shurtz. Last year, Stratford expanded with a campus in New Delhi, in conjunction with a private manufacturing group.

Some 30 countries are represented at Stratford, with students from India representing the largest share. Many of the Indian students enroll in graduate software engineering courses, and with the OPT extension, they can get nearly three years of experience in the U.S., and then go home "and get great jobs," says Shurtz.

"If the U.S. wants to continue to be an economic power, they are going to have to absorb those workers in the U.S. in support of our economy instead of sending them home," he contends, adding that the H-1B visa "allows us to keep that brain power."

Small shops remake the IT landscape

H-1B critics have focused their attention primarily on large offshore firms that employ some H-1B workers in the U.S. (Infosys Technologies Ltd., for example, received 4,559 H-1B visas in 2008.)

But separately, the H-1B visa has changed the IT consulting landscape, creating a new type of company -- technically a U.S. company, but one that is staffed primarily by H-1B visa holders and often has offices overseas, usually in India, where client work is completed. These firms represent a new kind of competition in the IT consulting marketplace.

A sampling of the makeup of these firms was detailed in a lawsuit filed by the TechServe Alliance in Alexandria, Va. The organization, which represents a handful of such firms, filed the suit against the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) over an interpretation of its rules.

The companies include Broadgate Inc. in Troy, Mich., which counts 21 H-1B visa holders among its 46 IT workers; Logic Planet Inc. in Edison, N.J., which employs 95 IT workers, including 89 on H-1B visas; and DVR Softek Inc., also in Edison, N.J., which says that 45 of its 50 tech workers hold H-1B visas. Both Broadgate and Logic Planet hired students from Stratford, and from other schools as well, according to the government's listing.

The rise of these small IT consulting and services firms that almost exclusively employ foreign workers has led to increased scrutiny of H-1B applications for companies of all size. Two years ago, the USCIS used a random sample of 246 cases drawn from a pool of nearly 100,000 and found 51 with problems ranging from fraud to "technical violations," which can be something as small as a mistake in the application.

The findings, however, were enough to prompt the USCIS to increase its scrutiny of H-1B visa applications through "request for evidence" -- proof that the job for the visa worker is a real one. Immigration attorneys say those requests can be extensive and may even include photographs of a future employee's workspace and the schematics of the building in which the office is located.

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