U.S. Border Tightens For Foreign Workers

Delays for visiting project managers threaten outsourcing success
As the United States tightens homeland security, it's becoming more difficult to bring foreign project managers into the country for meetings or IT contractors in for short-term assignments.

Greg Tranter, CIO at financial-services company Allmerica Financial Corp., says it takes three to six months for offshore IT project managers to gain authorization to visit the company's offices in Worcester, Mass. Last year, the typical waiting period was a month.

That's a problem, Tranter says, because the key to successful offshore outsourcing is having a strong project manager, who travels back and forth as necessary, as a liaison between a company's domestic operations and a vendor's offshore facilities. Allmerica outsources much of its application development and maintenance to Keane Inc., which has staff in Hyderabad, India.

A spokesman at the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Service (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service) admits there are longer waits for all immigration. That includes B1 and L1 visas for foreign-em- ployed workers on short-term visits and H-1B visas for foreign workers employed by U.S. companies. The delays are because the State Department, which makes the final decision after immigration officials find an applicant eligible, is screening more carefully for security risks.


Clopay's Honerkamp had to write a letter explaining why he needed to bring an Indian subcontractor into the country.
Last month, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled Operation Liberty Shield, which includes "more interviews and detailed screenings" of people coming in and out of the United States. Dini Nair, a New York immigration attorney, says a person's name or address can trigger a rigorous inspection if it matches criteria in a government database. "The problem is we don't know what that criteria are," Nair says.

Jim Honerkamp, CIO at Clopay Corp., a building- and plastics-products maker, has seen firsthand how immigration policies are tightening. Last week, he had to write a letter outlining why he needed to bring an Indian subcontractor to the United States. The letter was to the CEO of the worker's employer, Cybernet Software Systems Inc., and will be passed on to immigration authorities. "I've never had to do that before," Honerkamp says.

A weak economy is also slowing the process. Companies hiring foreign workers must prove they couldn't hire a U.S. worker, which is more difficult to do with unemployment up. Technology only goes so far in helping to speed up the process--companies such as have online tools to make filling out applications faster, but the immigration bureau accepts them only on paper.

The Information Technology Association of America, the IT industry's lobbyist, meets monthly with immigration, state, and labor officials. But, ITAA president Harris Miller says, no matter what they resolve, regulations face interpretation by field agents. "They can pass a rule," he says, "but it doesn't mean every consular official in Mumbai gets the word or that he or she isn't going to be idiosyncratic in its interpretation."

Photo by Jim Callaway