H-1B: The voices behind the visa

This article is part of our special report on the 20th anniversary of the H-1B visa, which also includes first-person accounts from five IT workers who have been directly affected by the H-1B program and visual and interactive tools to help you analyze H-1B visa data.

Twenty years into its existence, the controversial H-1B visa for foreign workers in specialty occupations shows no signs of inciting less discord as it ages.

This month alone, debate over whether foreigners are taking jobs from American high-tech workers drove election debate in several key states and framed coverage of Barack Obama's state visit to India, the chief exporter of H-1B workers to the U.S.

The H-1B discussion is always heated and sometimes worse -- racist, elitist, subjective or just plain ugly. Between the minutiae of federal immigration policy debate and the inflamed rhetoric from both proponents and opponents, what's often lost are the stories of real people whose lives have been directly affected by the guest worker visa program.

Computerworld took aim at that imbalance by seeking out IT workers, both international and domestic, who were willing to talk about how H-1B has influenced their livelihoods for better or for ill. To protect their jobs, most of our sources requested anonymity, which we granted after verifying their credentials independently.

What follows are their perceptions of their H-1B experiences, told in their own words. We condensed and edited their opinions for brevity and clarity but did not independently corroborate every claim.

[Related: View maps and data showing the geographic concentration of 2009 H-1B visa applications for tech jobs as a heat map, by city or as a searchable, sortable database. And read H-1B: The voices behind the visa for individuals' stories of how the H-1B program has changed their lives.]

Madhav B.: 'If we stopped H-1B, IT would crash.'

I am in the United States on an H-1B. My green card is under process. I originally came on an F-1 student visa.

I did my master's at Texas State University. As an international student, you pay three times the tuition for public university. In India, even if your parents are solvent, you don't ask them for money once you are an adult.

I worked very hard for my master's. I decided in my mind, you have to be top in the university. I had a research assistantship and a dean's scholarship and published three papers before I graduated.

Once my OPT (optional practical training) was done, it took me some time to find a job. An aerospace corporation was interested, but I was told by HR that they no longer hired international students. The policy changed after 9/11. I had no complaint. Those are the rules and regulations, and we have to follow them.

[A federal research center] considered hiring me as well, but it was denied. They were having a recession and couldn't [justify putting] international students in those programs.

I had some calls from [a global processor corporation] to go and do coding, but that was not acceptable to me. I am a designer and a researcher. My specialty is in speech processing, digital signal processing.

Finally I got a job, at [a worldwide software and services corporation], and later at [a global vendor of software and hardware systems]. Very briefly after that I went back to India, but I was soon hankering for change. In India, at a midmanagement level, you have no power to bring about change. So I came back.

I have been on a review panel for NASA, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation. I am a program director for The Project Management Institute. I have 11 papers published. I don't say all this to imply that I will be named a Nobel laureate; I say it because I have a couple of very strong points to put forward and I want people to understand my credentials.

At the top technology companies, especially at [the software and services corporation], 60% to 70% are H-1B, Indian or Chinese. This was happening as far back as 2006. This company retains the title of being No. 1 in the world because they are getting the brains of the world, the best of the best.

If we stopped H-1B, IT would crash. It would affect at least 50% of the people with the niche skills that cannot be easily replaced. The U.S. has a lot of talent, but wherever people are outstanding, the U.S. should try to help them into this country, to choose from a pool of talent worldwide.

H-1B holders cannot negotiate easily. If your company doesn't sponsor you anymore, you have 15 days to find someone else to sponsor your visa. In this job market, no way.

Consulting companies can hire and fire you with no obligation. They try to take advantage of this kind of employee, they promise something and don't deliver. In a lot of places they treat you as a second-class citizen. It's very easy for any citizen to put the blame on the contractor and fire them.

H-1Bs pay Medicare and Social Security taxes. Is it right for the government to collect that money? I don't mind paying the taxes that the government needs to run, but paying tax that I will not be entitled to, is that fair? I wouldn't mind paying toward citizenship. There should be a classification. They could ask, what is your future plan? Do you want to stay in this country? And based on that they could take the money.

America is the No. 1 country in the world. People who are in India are ready to do everything and anything to come into this country. If you go to another country, they say, "Oh, he worked in the United States." It is assumed you have very good skills.

Innovation will happen in other places, not in the United States, if we do not continue to get talent from the whole world. People come here for the great research facilities and the universities. They follow Bill Gates. If we lose them, we will lose a lot of talent.

America for me feels like a second birthplace. I feel I have a debt to this country. I perform social work. I volunteer. I add value to the society. If I go back to my country, the investment from me in the U.S. will be zero.

One time on a contract job, a guy said to me, "Why don't you go back to your country?" I said, "The day I cannot find a job or the government says 'We don't want you,' I will go."

Rob Sanchez: 'The first to go will be the expensive Americans.'

I went to the University of Texas at El Paso, received a B.S. in electrical engineering, and worked for eight years at [a global communications corporation] in Scottsdale, Ariz., until I was laid off in 1988. There were huge cuts in defense spending, and more than 50% of the engineers at the company lost their jobs.

Then I put in five years at [a medical circuit manufacturer] as a test engineer before I moved on to [a large government contractor], helping design test equipment, firmware and software for a GUI interface.

I was working late one Friday night when I overheard some young engineers two cubicles away say an H-1B was coming in on Monday. I knew I was a dead man walking. The workforce there was very young, mostly under 30, and high-tech companies tend to hire young and fire old.

Sure enough, I got the axe, and the H-1B got my job. The type of job I was doing was fairly unique, but there's no question they could have found another American.

The second time, I was working alongside an H-1B holder from Russia at a small start-up in Phoenix that has since gone out of business. He was a real nice guy. We got along fine. Everybody knew the company operated on a shoestring -- they got me pretty cheap, because I was getting sort of desperate with all the layoffs in the industry and the corporate takeovers, but they got him cheaper.

I was doing software for a telephone communications system for them. The investors were hoping to be able to sell the company. They were dreaming of a gargantuan payoff, but when companies passed on buying it, we all knew there were going to be massive cuts. When companies are cutting their budgets, the first to go will be the expensive Americans, and that's what happened.

What's harder to detect than being out-and-out replaced by an H-1B worker is when you don't even get job offers because there's such a vast pool of H-1Bs that you're competing against. I've gone in for interviews that were clearly meaningless. They were mock interviews just so they could meet their labor requirements. They would tap the shoulder of some junior engineer to interview you for five minutes. It's just about sharing a common culture and language -- an H-1B manager is going to be more comfortable hiring other H-1Bs.

I went through the whole re-education thing at a local community college, but it didn't pay off too well -- I got one temporary job out of it. As you get older, you can go and get those skills, but employers will say, "I can hire a 22-year-old or an H-1B; why should I hire this guy in a saturated job market?"

I have a passion for engineering, and I thought I could maintain my career for the rest of my life, but realistically, my career is over. I'm making payments on the electricity, paying to keep my computer going, but my medical copays are going up. I'm definitely feeling squeezed.

Sekhar J.: 'Consultancies are 90% of the problem.'

I came to the United States in November of 2007. My H-1B was sponsored by an Indian consulting firm. They have an address in Washington, D.C. They tell the clients they have a guest house there, but really it's just a post office box.

I was coming from Bahrain. They gave me a Skype number to call in on for an interview with the client. It was five o'clock in the morning. They told me to say I was already in Washington. The client was in San Antonio. They thought I was already in the country on the H-1B.

I cleared the interview and came into the country. The consulting firm told me to stay in a hotel one night in Washington, then the client paid for my ticket to Texas. I hated the feeling that I had lied, so I told my boss after a few days. He said, "It doesn't matter as long as you're good in your work. If we like you, we'll convert their H-1B to our H-1B."

At the consultancy, if you get $100, you have to pay $40 to them; it's a 40-60 split. Their policy is that they hold one month's salary. I talked to my friends. They said it's the way these companies run; it happens other places. But after two months I was still not getting payment, and my own money was running out. I said to them, "Give me my salary, give me some money," and they said, "We will when we see the money from the client."

I told my boss, and they agreed to hire me and sponsor my H-1B. They said, "Tell us how much you're getting from the consultancy, and we'll pay you that." That's good because there are benefits, which the consultancy doesn't pay.

When I told the consultancy I was resigning because I was not getting my salary from them, they said, "We will deport you." I was new in the U.S. and didn't want any legal tension. I saw so many things like this happen in Bahrain. In the end, my company handled everything, which was very good fortune for me. They paid almost $20,000 to settle the issue.

I have a better life here in the United States, and I tried to pull my brother here. I paid another consultancy firm almost $4,000 to bring him here. At the last minute, they said, "We cannot get a client letter" [showing he had a job waiting, which is necessary for H-1B approval], but they didn't return my money. This money was a really big amount for me. I was very angry at that time, but I couldn't drop everything to fight this. I didn't want to have to pay a lawyer and lose more money.

The consultancies are 90% of the problem. Definitely there should be a proper audit, where they show the money received from the client, show the money they pay us. Every six months or quarterly they should have to send a salary list to the government.

Brian L.: 'Chop shop is a very appropriate term.'

I'm an independent consultant. I have my own firm. I originally implemented an ERP system for [a global medical products and services company] 12 years ago, and they brought me back last year to do an upgrade and consolidation. I was responsible for producing the functional specifications. I was managing seven H-1B [visa holders] in my area of the project.

The company hired [a white-shoe American consulting firm], who turned around and brought in [a large Indian IT service provider] to actually do the coding, a mix of onshore and off. The [service provider] lowballed to get the bid. The bid went to a vote, and four out of the five VPs at the medical services firm voted no; they said, "Let's use our resources who have been here 10-plus years." But the CIO overruled them. The bottom line was, it's cheaper labor.

Ironically, the project is over budget. The programming quality has been shockingly bad. The software they sent overseas was coming back so bad, it wasn't even salvageable. The company had to say "onshore coding only," but even that has been a disaster.

The H-1Bs get paid a pittance, and everyone loses. "Chop shop" is a very appropriate term. They constantly swap people in and out. [The service provider] doesn't have enough H-1B visas, so they subcontract with these little mom and pop consultancies. Of the H-1Bs in my area, five of the seven were subcontracted.

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