By Sharon Simonson
Silicon Valley H-1B visa season is in full bloom, but not everything is rosy.
As the April 1 opening date approaches to apply for the coveted foreign-worker permission slips, regional attorneys who write and file the petitions say demand tops even last year’s when so many applications were made so fast, the federal government stopped accepting them after a week.
Stakes are high for workers and the high-tech and consulting companies that rely most on the work visas and that today compete fiercely for technical talent worldwide. The earliest a company could hope to hire a potential H-1B worker passed over in this year’s selection is October 2016.
“This is the big talk right now among the HR (human resources) people,” said Palo Alto immigration attorney Marcine Seid. “‘What am I going to do if my engineer doesn’t get an H-1B? We love this kid, and he is right in the middle of our product invention.’”
Demand for H-1Bs soared at the end of the dot-com boom, plummeted with its bust, then soared again in 2007 and 2008, only to plummet again after the financial crisis. It has now come roaring back.
In 2013, the Homeland Security Department’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 124,000 H-1B petitions in the first week of April, after which the agency stopped accepting more for the fiscal year. Last year, USCIS received 172,500 applications in the same time and again stopped accepting them. In both years, the government used a random lottery to select winners.
The federal government limits the number of new H-1Bs going to businesses to 85,000 new foreign hires a year. That includes 20,000 visas allocated solely to immigrant workers with a master’s or doctoral degree from a U.S. institution.
Silicon Valley immigration attorneys said they anticipate another lottery this year and at least as many H-1B petitions filed in April’s initial days as in 2014’s.
Despite such demand, many technology companies have grown weary and wary of the H-1B process, attorneys said. Each application generally requires at least 300 pages of documentation and commands federal government fees that can total more than $5,000, not including legal expenses.
Fremont immigration attorney Kalpana Peddibhotla, who represents Silicon Valley technology companies and startups seeking the visas, says clients still “are willing to forge ahead, largely because identifying and retaining talent in a competitive market like Silicon Valley is in and of itself extremely challenging.”
“For the U.S. to remain competitive in the tech sector, our immigration laws and their enforcement need to be updated to reflect the realities of the modern workplace,” she said.
The most active seekers of H-1B permits by far are India-based technology services companies Infosys Ltd., Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. and Wipro Ltd., according to MyVisaJobs.com, a website for foreign workers seeking consideration for U.S. jobs. In its most recent annual report, Infosys, which employed more than 160,000 people worldwide — the vast majority of them Indian nationals — said nearly 13,000 of its workers were in the United States on H-1B visas.
Microsoft, Google, Intel, Amazon, Apple and other valley tech companies also seek access to foreign workers, but at a fraction of the scale of the big three Indian companies, according to MyVisaJobs.
The Bay Area also “is awash with smaller consulting companies that may hire a couple of H1 workers to several dozens of H1 workers a year,” said Hasan Abdullah, president and managing attorney of the American Visa Law Group PC in Fremont.
Typically, these companies subcontract their workers to a “preferred vendor” favored by one or more of the larger high-tech employers in the region, he said. That vendor in turn places the worker in a workplace. “Sometimes there are more than three parties involved, even four and five,” he said. Each middleman takes a percentage of the salary paid by the tech company, whittling down a $120 an hour pay rate to $25 an hour or $30 an hour for the worker.
Abdullah hosts a twice-weekly radio program on Desi 1170 KLOK AM in the Bay Area where he addresses callers’ questions on immigration law. The popular term “desi” refers to people of Indian and South Asian descent.
American law contemplates H-1B visas, which are good for three years and can be renewed once, as steppingstones to permanent legal U.S. residency. But the wait times for some people to gain U.S. green cards have grown impossibly long, Abdullah said.
Historically, public-health conditions and other factors made the United States a clear move up from India, and U.S. wages still remain higher. “But we are seeing equalization worldwide and the quality of life in India is getting better, so the actual difference for an educated person in India and here is getting closer and closer. In India, they may have servants and be able to get the best education for their kids. They can afford it all. Here it is a struggle,” he said.
Vineeth Chelekkat, who identifies himself on LinkedIn as an assistant manager at Indian Overseas Bank in the Chikmagalur area of India and a former Wipro test engineer, offered one perspective on the current experience of H-1B workers in the United States. Writing on Quora, a crowd-sourcing website popular with South Asian people, Chelekkat described the life of a U.S.-based H-1B visa worker as one of a series of unpleasant surprises beginning with the high costs of housing and food and culminating not in happily-ever-after U.S. citizenship but back in India, discarded by corporate America.