The H1B visa is such a big deal for the Indian expatriate community in Silicon Valley that immigration lawyer Madhuri Nemali has been able to build her business around it. Nemali says over half of her clients are Indian nationals struggling with some aspect of the visa program.
The H1B is a temporary work permit that's intended for those with highly specialized skills, like computer engineering. Workers from India receive far more H1Bs than people from any other country -- some years, nearly 10 times as many as workers from China, who are second on the list.
Hundreds of thousands of Indian expats hold H1B visas. Many live in Silicon Valley, and many feel the H1B program has major problems no one is addressing.
Nemali says clients come to her office in San Jose with all kinds of H1B issues. Many have trouble getting one. Some who hold the visa are being taken advantage of by their employers. Others have put down roots but now can't get a green card, which is proof of permanent residency. The H1B visa affects the whole Indian community, Nemali says.
“It’s kind of one of those solidarity things,” Nemali says. “You’re either going through it personally, or you know someone who is going through it.”
There is so much discontent about the visa that some Indians on H1Bs, like Avinash Conda, are trying to change the system.
Conda is a marketing manager. He says that, unlike with most people, the visa has worked well for him. He came from India, finished graduate school in Kentucky and got an H1B to work at a small tech company. Now his current employer is sponsoring him for a green card.
“I wish my story wasn’t an anomaly,” Conda says. “I wish everyone had the path as easy as I had it.”
First, Conda says, H1Bs are hard to get. There's a lottery, and sometimes just one of every three or four applicants succeeds. If you do get one, you are then dependent on an employer for sponsorship. Companies have been sued for abusing this leverage, doing illegal things like forcing employees to pay thousands in visa fees, or making them sign bondage contracts so they cannot quit without paying a bunch of cash.
“It’s modern-day slavery, more or less,” Conda says.
Conda concedes that's a bit of an overstatement. But he says it should be easier for H1B workers to become permanent residents so that they have more power in the workplace. He is writing to legislators and organizing with other foreign workers who he says are overlooked by politicians.
“None of the H1Bs are voters,” Conda says. “We’re hardly heard because we don’t matter at this point.”
One of the biggest advocates in the Indian community for overhauling the H1B visa is not a worker, but a tech businessman -- Neeraj Gupta.
Like Conda, Gupta was also on an H1B once. He says worker abuse is the result of a bigger problem: The visa is no longer being used just to get top talent, but instead to outsource jobs.
“As you delve deeper into the data,” Gupta says, “it’s quite clear that a large majority of the use of the program is directed toward the outsourcing industry.”
Here is how the outsourcing works: Gupta says about 80 percent of H1B visas go to low-level IT workers at contracting companies you have probably never heard of, firms like Wipro and Infosys. This makes it harder for higher-skilled workers like Avinash Conda to win the H1B lottery.
Meanwhile, Gupta says American businesses lay off employees and hand over the work to IT contractors. Last year, Disney and Southern California Edison were in the news for replacing long-term employees with H1Bs.
Gupta saw the tactic in action as an executive for a big outsourcing firm.
“I remember sitting in Washington, D.C., in 2008 with a proposal that was going to outsource 300 jobs," he says.
The tech industry has lobbied aggressively for more H1Bs, saying there is not enough talent in the United States to fill jobs. Gupta doesn't buy it. The outsourcing made him so queasy he founded his own IT staffing company, one that "in-sourced" -- hired Americans and immigrants who had put down roots here.
“I believe there is an underutilized workforce here in the U.S.,” Gupta says, “Kids who could get much more meaningful jobs in the technology industry.”
Gupta has testified before Congress, where reform efforts have failed again and again. He does not think the H1B will be revamped anytime soon, especially considering that we're in an election year.
Madhuri Nemali is meeting with another client, a young college grad who needs an H1B to stay in the country. Nemali explains that there are not many options if she does not win the H1B lottery. The woman is sitting with her boyfriend, taking notes, writing down the important dates and key numbers. She cannot believe her fate is up to a random lottery.
Nemali says it makes sense that Indians are the ones speaking up about the H1B. More than anyone, they are experiencing the problems connected to this visa. Indians are on the frontlines Nemali says. It’s up to them to keep pushing for change.