Land of Plenty

Why would a bright, talented software engineer from India want to leave his family and friends to work thousands of miles away in the U.S.?

"In the U.S., you can do whatever you want to," explains Vinod Cheriyan.

Cheriyan will graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay) in June and plans to move to the U.S. this fall to work at a U.S.-based IT consulting firm that's sponsoring his H-1B visa.

"The pay is better, but more important, I will be exposed to people of many different backgrounds," Cheriyan says. He expects such exposure to be useful in his long-term career goal of becoming a management consultant.

Though today's immigration is hardly on a par with the massive waves of people the U.S. admitted in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the same forces that motivated millions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants then are at work today among the tens of thousands of skilled professionals coming to the U.S. through the H-1B visa program.

Suvrat Lele, a classmate of Cheriyan's who is also scheduled to immigrate to the U.S. this fall, sums it up: "There are more opportunities."

India in the Lead

India far outpaces any other country supplying H-1B professionals, with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimating that Indian nationals account for nearly 43% of the H-1B visas issued in fiscal 2000. China lags in second place, at just under 10%.

Employers and immigration attorneys say India leads in H-1B numbers because English, a legacy of the country's colonial past, is widely spoken, which helps in technology circles. The nation also boasts a network of technology institutes modeled on MIT that prospective employers praise highly.

"Our students are much better than the U.S. recruiters expect," says S.K. Maiti, a professor of mechanical engineering at IIT Bombay and director of its placement program. Lele specialized in information design; Cheriyan is skilled in several programming languages, including C, Fortran and Java. Students also have access to labs for creating applications for commercial software like SAP.

With large Indian immigrant communities already in technology hot spots such as Silicon Valley and in major U.S. cities, Indian H-1B holders say they're comfortable making the U.S. their temporary home.

Homegrown H-1Bs

Some H-1B holders aren't recruited in their native lands but make the transition to H-1B status while studying in the U.S. Torsten Reinl, a native of Germany, took this route.

While still a college student in Seattle, Reinl interned at a large entertainment software firm. His position evolved into a job checking the German translation of a children's software game and writing and translating new dialogue. He liked the work so much, he asked his bosses if the company might sponsor an H-1B visa for him. They agreed, and today Reinl is a foreign language quality-assurance analyst at the firm.

"The visa took some time and lots of documentation," Reinl recalls. That included providing industry-standard requirements for similar jobs, proof that his employer needed him, college transcripts and samples of actual work he had done, such as translated "readme" files. Reinl remembers being fairly calm throughout this process. "It was out of my hands," he says.

Then, when his H-1B was finally approved, Reinl had to leave the country to have a U.S. consulate put an H-1B stamp in his passport. "Fortunately, Canada is only two hours from here, so that was not too inconvenient," he says.

Reinl says his co-workers have sympathized with what he characterizes as "all the hoops" he's gone through to get the visa. "I am not taking any jobs away from anyone," he points out. "I also pay taxes, including Social Security taxes." In fact, one of the first things H-1B applicants must do is apply for a Social Security card.

Other H-1B Sources?

For now, it's India that seems secure as the main source of H-1B candidates. No other country is even close.

That's in part because so many countries are trying to recruit high-tech specialists of their own. By 2004, the entire Asia-Pacific region will need more than 21 million IT professionals, with 7 million of them required in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan alone, says Stephanie Li, a senior analyst at IDC's Asia-Pacific regional office in Singapore. The region is already facing talent shortages, she says.

Similarly, the European Union has announced its own IT worker shortage, and Germany is creating a program similar to the H-1B to attract IT professionals, including those from India. But analysts say the U.S. is still the first choice for many emigrants.

"Immigration is at the top of populist political agendas in most EU countries," says Andrew Milroy, director of IDC's European Services Group in London. He notes that protectionist movements have responded with anger and demonstrations against Germany's visa program. Similar responses in other countries could easily make Europe less attractive to emigrating IT professionals.

Bona fide H-1B holders occasionally sense scrutiny as well. "You feel barely tolerated by the INS sometimes," says Reinl, even though his recent H-1B extension was easily approved. "It seems as though they would rather you didn't stay too long."

When Cheriyan's H-1B term is complete, he says, he intends to go back to India and start a business. He says he has only two worries about coming to the U.S.: "Climate and crime."

Global Draw

Approved H-1B visa petitions by country of birth, FY2000, October 1999 to February 2000 only (Includes new petitions and visa extensions)

COUNTRY OF BIRTH

INDIVIDUALS

% OF TOTAL

India

34,381

42.6

China

7,987

9.9

Canada

3,143

3.9

United Kingdom

2.598

3.2

Philippines

2.576

3.2

Taiwan

1,794

3.2

Korea

1,691

2.1

Japan

1,631

2.0

Pakistan

1,508

1.9

Russia

1,408

1.7

Germany

1,261

1.6

France

1,204

1.5

Mexico

1,011

1.3

Brazil

861

1.1

South Africa

838

1,0

Columbia

769

1.0

Hong Kong

738

0.9

Malaysia

722

0.9

Australia

644

0.8

Indonesia

635

0.8

Other countries

13,386

16.6

Total known countries of birth:

80,786

100.00

Note: The INS does not cross-reference occupational data with country-of-birth data.

Computerworld H-1B Feature Stories:

The New Immigration Wave

Twice as many H-1B workers are entering the U.S. as two years ago, primarily taking technology jobs.

Playing the Numbers Game

How many IT Jobs are being filled by foreign workers? Nobody really knows.

Computerworld's H-1B and Immigration Research/Resource Links:
H-1B and Immigration Resources
A list of resources from around the Web with more information about H-1B visa programs and U.S. immigration policies.

Read Computerworld's past H-1B Coverage:
H-1B Visa Coverage

Computerworld Forums:
What do you think?

Post your opinions about the H-1B program, and read what others have to say here.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
Shop Tech Products at Amazon