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."

Next page: The 'expensive Americans' and the 'chop shop' problem

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