U.S. Visa Holders Live With Uncertainty

Greater demand for H-1B visas makes for a tougher road to working in the U.S.
While U.S. tech workers are threatened by lower-cost offshore competitors, so too are those working under H-1B and L-1 visas. In fact, since they come with the hassle of visa lotteries and green card applications, they figure to be first to go if an employer embraces offshore IT work. "Our company is outsourcing a lot of work to India, so generally speaking, it's a threat," says Jorge Larre, who works with a large multinational software vendor in the United States.

Larre, who's two years into a three-year L-1 visa as a manager on a software development team, had been working for the same company in France before being assigned to the United States. He plans to renew his L-1 for three years and will likely apply for a green card. Larre says his department includes a lot of other Europeans as well as Indians because of both "the availability of labor and the cost of labor."

L-1 visas are controversial in part because, unlike H-1Bs, they're not capped. Critics say they're being abused by outsourcing companies hiring out people for outsourced IT work, not using them for the intended purpose of bringing in international managers.

A green card could be in Clark's future

A green card could be in Clark's future
Jim Clark came to the United States when his employer, fuel pipeline company TransCanada, recently purchased a U.S. fuel company. He came to the United States from Canada on an L-1 visa to manage a $15 million program that includes modernizing the customer information system used by the acquired company. The rest of the 16-member team is American. Clark intended to be in the United States temporarily, but he's considering applying for his green card to work permanently in the States as TransCanada considers other U.S. acquisitions and looks to create a U.S. IT project team. For now, Clark's wife, in the country on an L-2 visa, can't work until he gets a green card, he says.

Paul Nelson brings the sort of niche tech talent U.S. employers say is hard to find. Nelson, who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, is a research informatics architect and software developer--essentially the database expert--for the research group of pharmaceutical company Amylin. Nelson has been in the United States with a H-1B visa for more than six years, four of which included waiting for his green card, which he got about two months ago. He wound up in the immigration process by chance: Amylin doesn't set out to recruit foreign workers, but he heard about the company while attending a conference in San Diego, while he was a postdoc working for the Roslin Institute.

"My view is that companies aren't giving away American jobs," he says. Rather, not enough Americans get advanced degrees, he says, and one of the biggest reasons is the cost. Nelson got his master's degree in Scotland, paid for by the U.K. government, after living a number of years there, and a company paid for his doctoral degree.

Some of the most dramatic changes proposed to the H-1B system would have involved foreign-born graduates from U.S. universities' advanced degree programs. Already, there are 20,000 visas set aside for such graduates, on top of the 65,000 unrestricted H-1B visas, and some proposals called for eliminating that supplementary cap altogether. U.S. workers worry that such a move would unleash a flood of new workers, driving down salaries.

It certainly would have eased what has become an increasingly tense end-of-the-year cycle for foreign-born graduates, as H-1B visas become harder to get. One example is an Indian national who graduated from a U.S. university in May 2006 with a degree in marketing and international business. Since graduating, the woman, who asked that her name not be used, has been doing data analysis. Now that her one-year training period is up, having not been selected in the H-1B lottery, she's trying to stay in the United States by registering for additional classes to get an advanced degree in mathematics. She hopes she can find another employer afterward that will sponsor her for an H-1B--and be lucky enough to have her application accepted.

The chance to work in this country is part of the calculation many foreign students make in picking a U.S. university. "Parents in India spend a lot of money to get their kids educated in the U.S., and then employers will say, 'We like you, but we can't hire you,'" she says.

It's part of the gamble of moving to another country in hopes of finding work. U.S. lawmakers, for now, have killed proposals to take away some of that doubt for U.S.-educated foreigners.

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