H-1B Refugees

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Kamen Spassov has already seen hope vanish. He's seen 100% inflation in a single day. He's seen computer factories shut their doors or get recycled into refrigerator warehouses. He's seen his homeland, Bulgaria, turn into a land of despair.

"After the end of the Cold War, it was all gone," he says. "At the beginning, there was great hope. But after a while, people just left. Who cares about buying computers at such a time? The vast majority of scientists and engineers came to the U.S."

Like his peers, Spassov, a former electrical engineer, IT magazine editor and IBM account manager in Bulgaria, packed up his wife and two children in 1999 and headed to the U.S. to find new hope for a better life. And he did. He earned an MBA, landed a well-paying job and secured an H-1B visa so he could keep his family in the country, long enough, he hoped, to get a green card. But in November, Spassov found himself back where he started—unemployed, in Bulgaria with his family, wishing he could get to the U.S.

Welcome to the H-1B roller coaster. A year ago, foreign workers were in such demand that the government raised the cap on H-1B visas—temporary work permits for highly skilled people, including IT professionals—from 115,000 to 195,000. But as the economy continues its tailspin and more than 1 million American workers have been laid off, the national debate over H-1B visas has again picked up steam.

Critics argue that since there aren't enough jobs for Americans, the last thing the government should do is let more foreigners into the country to work. But H-1B proponents counter that cutting off the supply of H-1B visas is simple discrimination and that all workers—foreign or local—should be hired on the basis of their skills.

Kamen Spassov, pictured with his family in their apartment in Arlington, Mass., before returning to Bulgaria last month.
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Kamen Spassov, pictured with his family in their apartment in Arlington, Mass., before returning to Bulgaria last month.

Photo by Webb Chappell

Meanwhile, as the debate rages on, many foreign workers have found themselves not only unemployed, but also forced to uproot their families once again and return home with their heads hanging low.

"Most Indians normally come on a one-way ticket. They plan to settle in America," says Xavier Augustin, president and CEO of Y-Axis.com, a Hyderabad, India-based online resource for H-1B visa holders. "So this came as a shock that they had to come back home."

For many, it's more than just a letdown, says Augustin. "They've become Americanized," so their entire lives are turned around when they go home, he explains. "There's also a stigma attached in the local society. You came back because you couldn't make it in America."

But for many, the consequences are far worse than a fall from grace. For example, Augustin has a Pakistani friend who wants to seek asylum in the U.S. because of the war in neighboring Afghanistan. But he's afraid that his job search will be even more fruitless because of the fear and discrimination toward Muslims since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Many foreign workers face more daunting odds than their out-of-work American peers, Augustin says. "They were the golden kids when they were taken from India," he says. "They never had to market themselves because they were approached by consulting companies. These guys don't know how to talk on the phone; they don't know how to write a resume; they don't know their way around America." And if they're out of work for too long, they will lose their edge, he adds.

"The danger for a computer professional is not about money. It's their knowledge capital," says Augustin. "If they don't work for six months or a year, they become, in a sense, obsolete."

For Spassov, being handed a pink slip wasn't the tough part. He had been laid off a year earlier from his first U.S. job at Watertown, Mass.-based MediaMap Inc., a resource for business and IT public relations professionals. "It was much, much easier then," Spassov says. After leaving MediaMap, he landed another job right away and transferred his H-1B visa to his new employer, Manhasset, N.Y.-based CMP Media LLC, where he was product manager for the company's Techreviews.com Web site.

But when he was laid off from CMP in August, it was a different story. There were far fewer jobs and far more unemployed Americans. And the situation grew worse with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which seemed to spark a new sense of national pride that's made life more difficult for foreign workers here, Spassov says.

"That take-care-of-America sentiment—there is something in the air like this," he explains.

"People are very nice," Spassov says, stressing how welcoming and helpful his neighbors in Arlington, Mass., were. "But when I talk to people, I feel their fear. They're not afraid of me, but they don't feel comfortable with foreigners in general."

Clinging to Hope

Despite the grim situation, Spassov still clings to hope. After all, "this is the country with the greatest opportunities in the world," he says.

Initially, he had a choice: go back to Bulgaria and live a relatively comfortable life with the few thousand dollars he had in the bank, or stay in America and try to make a go of it while burning through his savings. Spassov chose to stay; he applied for an F-1 student visa and planned to work toward a doctorate in computer science at Northeastern University in Boston. He even landed a spot as a teaching assistant—it paid only 20% of what he was earning before, but it was something.

But that option fell through in November. The university couldn't let him work as a teaching assistant because he didn't have his F-1 visa yet. He contacted the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) about changing his status, and he was told it would take 120 to 180 days to review his petition.

The grim prospects for foreign workers haven't weakened the case for H-1B visas, says Harris Miller, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America. Miller was one of the leaders of the successful campaign to raise the H-1B cap last fall (after 2003, the cap is slated to return to its original level of 65,000). "Without more [visas], we would have been in trouble again," he says.

There were 163,200 visas approved in the government's fiscal 2001, which ended Sept. 30, with another 29,000 petitions pending, according to INS spokeswoman Nancy Cohen. Miller says he wouldn't be surprised if the number of applications drops in fiscal 2002. It's a simple case of supply and demand.

"H-1B [holders] are not exempt from the laws of economics," says Miller. The 195,000 is a cap, "not a target," he explains. "What we're arguing is that the law should be flexible enough that the labor market should decide."

But Spassov says U.S. companies have a lot to gain by hiring foreign workers. "We can contribute tremendously to the success of this country, because we are motivated to stay," he says.

Spassov says he's not sure what the future holds. He's just trying to remain realistic about his options.

"America is not the same," says Augustin. "The charm of America, the security of America is gone."

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By the Numbers

1. 1997, 1998, H-1B cap at 65,000; 2. Exceeded the cap of 115,000; 3. INS stopped accepting H-1B petitions by March due to backlog; 4. 29,000 visas still pending by close of fiscal year.

Source: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service

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For additional news and features about H-1B issues, visit our Focus on H-1B Visas special coverage page.

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