H-1B: The Voices Behind the Visa

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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.

Some of these guys are earning $28 an hour. One guy on my team is earning $33,000 [annually] for a position that's supposed to have 10 years experience, though he has nowhere near those credentials. He's living in a hotel with his wife and two children.

If you complain about H-1B, people play the race card, but two of the people laid off [from the medical services company] were Indian, one with 12 years experience and one with 15 years. One woman is brilliant, Indian and in her 40s, and they're chopping her.

I had signed a new contract, but the next month my boss was let go, and the new person canceled my contract. I was replaced by two people on L-1 visas, and one on an H-1B.

The workers in the trenches are afraid. Nobody's willing to scream from the rooftops that this thing is a fraud. But I'm at the stage now where I feel like I have to speak out.

Brijesh Nair

'I have only good memories.'

I came to the United States on an F-1 visa in 2001 to pursue my master's in civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University. I completed my M.S. in 2002 and my Ph.D. in 2007.

I worked as a design engineer on an H-1B visa from October 2006 until May 2010. My work was primarily to design water and wastewater treatment plants. I believe it was a specialized job. There are few Americans with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. I was working for a company in Arizona, and at the time, in that region, they were forced to take people like me with an H-1B visa.

The work-related part of my H-1B experience was always positive. Dealing with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services was always a nightmare, with so many complicated rules and regulations. Personally, though, I never had any serious issue with the USCIS, and my work experience was always good.

While I was in the United States, my wife was able to complete her master's in biomedical informatics, also at ASU. We came back to India at the end of May.

The reason? Everyone does a job to earn a good living, but also to contribute whatever they have learned to the good of the society. My wife and I thought we could attain both those goals by coming back to India.

The wastewater industry in India lags behind U.S. by at least 10 to 20 years. The majority of the Indian population does not have access to clean drinking water, and existing water treatment plants use very old technologies. I felt I could contribute more to society here working in the area of water treatment than staying in the U.S.

Plus, the world has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Now from my office in India I can easily collaborate with a professor or a company in the U.S. A few years back such collaboration was almost impossible. When you can do your work from anywhere in the world, why live far from your motherland?

Overall, my H-1B experience was positive. I was never on the receiving end of negative comments -- never. I was in the United States for more than 10 years -- six years as a student and another five as an H-1B visa [holder]. My co-workers and management respected me so much that I felt they were part of my own family.

Being able to work with the best [engineers] in the world, I learned a lot. My work experience in the United States has really helped me to kick-start my career here in India. Even though I have left the U.S. for good, it will always have a special place in my heart. I have only good memories.

[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.]

This story, "H-1B: The Voices Behind the Visa" was originally published by Computerworld.

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