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7/20/2007
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U.S. Visa Holders Live With Uncertainty

Greater demand for H-1B visas makes for a tougher road to working in the U.S.

Critics of the H-1B Visa program say U.S. employers are flocking to it to hire cheaper labor. Cherrie Yuen is one of the tens of thousands of H-1B holders who doesn't see things so black and white.

Yuen, a Hong Kong native, graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2005 with a master's in computer engineering. Like all foreign national graduates with an advanced degree from a U.S. school, she could stay in the country one year to train with an employer. But like many such grads, her goal was to extend her stay on an H-1B visa. "During that year, I needed to exceed all expectations," she says, so her employer would value her enough to put up with the H-1B expense and bureaucratic hurdles. Yuen made the cut--her employer agreed to sponsor her application in 2005, and she worked with human resources to make sure her application arrived the first day in April they're accepted. She landed a visa.

When the U.S. Senate killed the comprehensive immigration reform legislation proposed this year, it left a question hanging in the air: Would the issues of raising the H-1B visa ceiling, reforming the H-1B system, and dramatically altering the green card system be picked up on their own merits?

For foreign-born tech workers like Yuen, such uncertainty is nothing new. Whether it's foreign-born graduates of U.S. universities waiting on the H-1B lottery or an employee hoping to land a green card before an H-1B visa runs out, the road to working in the United States is filled with unknowns.

Many an American tech worker will snort at such concerns. What about their own fears about job security and career advancement as U.S. companies hire foreign nationals and outsource offshore? We examine those concerns in "To H-1B Or Not To H-1B?". But as U.S. companies rely on foreign-born talent and policy makers mull changes to immigration for well-educated workers, it's worth better understanding the problems people face in the H-1B and green card processes.

H-1B workers aren't indentured servants--they can switch employers, if they find one willing to apply for a visa transfer--but some H-1B visa holders waiting for green cards say they can feel like prisoners. That's because once an employer sponsors someone for a green card, the worker must wait it out, sometimes for years. The alternative is to leave the country or find a new company with which to start the process over again.

John Guy, who's from England, has worked in the United States under an H-1B visa for more than six years, having had it extended while waiting for his green card. He's in the final stages for his green card--meaning he expects it within three months to two years.

Some H-1B visa recipients have the same worries that visa critics do--that employers underpay them. Guy, a software engineer, says his employer pays him about average for what he's doing and has provided needed training. But he tells the story of a friend from South Africa who's waiting for a green card and for years has been doing Cobol programming at an employer that underpays her and provides no training. She can't leave without risking her place in line for a green card.

Guy's had his own share of frustrations with the H-1B and green card processes. "The uncertainty is dismal," he says. His wife has an H-4 visa, which means she can't take a job or apply for a Social Security number--one of the most-often cited frustrations for visa holders and green card applicants. Since Guy is waiting for his green card, he can't accept other job offers, and he worries that even promotions at his employer could complicate the paperwork.

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