Vishal Sankhla, an Indian engineer, is among those at the center of a storm over how to fix the nation's immigration system.
got a master's degree in electrical engineering nine years ago from the
University of Southern California, followed by a job at Cisco. He
eventually launched his own startup that attracted $4.5 million in
financing from Silicon Valley investors.
There was only one
wrinkle He was in the country on a temporary work visa, with no idea
whether or when he would get permanent residence.
He remains in
limbo, which preoccupies him almost as much as running his business.
"It's a constant distraction," said Sankhla, 32. "You can't really
settle down because your visa status is uncertain."
is battling in Washington to make the immigration process easier for
thousands of people like Sankhla, many of them Indian engineers, while
also pushing to hire many more guest workers from abroad.
has the industry been so single-mindedly focused on a national policy
issue, with executives like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and John T.
Chambers of Cisco personally involved. Its efforts seem to be paying
off, as a group of eight senators negotiate details of a comprehensive
immigration deal to be announced early next week.
lobbyists and advocates who have spoken to Senate staff members say they
are optimistic about at least two items high on their wish list: a
fast-track green card line for math and science graduates like Sankhla,
no matter which country they come from; and a near doubling of the visas
for temporary workers.
"I think we are going to get a balanced
outcome, which takes advantage of the value that immigrants bring to the
economy and be protective of U.S. workers," said Scott Corley, director
of Compete America, an industry coalition that includes Google and
The contentious piece of this is the potential increase in
temporary workers from abroad. Critics fear that is a ruse for lowering
Those critics are likely to get at least one boon from a
revamped law: a requirement that companies try to find qualified U.S.
workers before hiring from abroad. The law may also make it more
expensive to bring in guest workers.
The new immigration measure
will almost certainly fix a situation that keeps people like Sankhla
stuck in limbo for so long. The current law limits how many green cards
can be issued to people from any single country, no matter how populous.
effectively means that applicants from countries like India and China,
with a large supply of young engineers often educated in U.S.
universities, wait far longer for permanent residence than those from
almost every other country. The temporary employment visa, usually an
H-1B, has become a kind of way station for them.
The Senate is
considering eliminating the per-country quotas for those who graduate
from U.S. universities with math, science and engineering degrees.
debate in Congress perfectly illustrates how immigration law, codified
in 1965 and last revamped substantially in 1990, has lagged behind the
demands of a rapidly changing economy. Unemployment in the technology
industry hovers below 4 percent, far less than the national average.
that climate, temporary visas are in such heavy demand that the total
number available for the coming year - 65,000 for skilled workers and
20,000 for those with a master's degree or higher - were snatched up in
less than five days. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said
Monday it had received 124,000 applications in that time and had
resorted to a lottery to make the final cut.
The measure being
considered by lawmakers could nearly double H-1B visas allotted yearly
and possibly admit more temporary workers during periods of high demand,
said several advocates who have discussed the matter with congressional
staff members and who declined to be named.
"If you were the
human resources vice president of the United States, you would want to
have a rule that says if things get busy and you need skilled people you
can bring in people," said Dan Siciliano, a law professor at Stanford.
"At the same time you would want a way to bring highly skilled people in
and perhaps at your choosing convert them to status that lets them stay
A vast range of U.S. organizations seek H-1B
workers for technical jobs, from the Boston Red Sox baseball team to the
chain store Nordstrom to technology companies like Google and
Some of the largest blocs of H-1B petitions are taken
by outsourcing companies, which makes them even more contentious.
Critics say those firms import engineers with basic skills and pay them
"It invites employers to play a game of wage arbitrage,"
said Ron Hira, assistant professor of public policy at the Rochester
Institute of Technology and a critic of the program.
calculation, nine out of the 10 largest chunks of H-1B petitions went to
outsourcing companies, including Cognizant, which is based in New
Jersey, followed by the Indian firm Tata Consultancy Services.
workers themselves can be subject to unfair labor practices under U.S.
law. In one of the largest cases, Tata Consultancy Services recently
settled a $29 million class-action lawsuit in California, in which it
was accused of seizing the federal tax refunds of about 12,800 temporary
workers from 2002-05.
The settlement will award an average of
$1,600 to each worker. Tata did not admit to any wrongdoing. A company
spokesman declined to comment on its use of H-1B visas, citing rules
limiting company statements before quarterly earnings reports.
2011 report by the Government Accountability Office found that half of
all H-1Bs were brought in at entry-level wages. The new bill may require
companies to pay higher wages for temporary workers. It is unclear
whether that would apply only to outsourcing firms.
the program point out that new H-1B workers admitted every year
represent less than 1 percent of the total U.S. workforce, and that
outsourcing firms represent a minority of employers. Stuart Anderson,
executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy,
concluded that in the last five years, the 25 largest outsourcing firms
accounted for 7-27 percent of all new H-1Bs issued.
As for the rest, many are used by would-be immigrants to find jobs and then wait for green cards.
switched from an H-1B to another temporary category reserved for people
of "extraordinary ability," which allowed him to continue with his
startup Viralheat, which is based in San Mateo, Calif., and mines
consumer sentiment on social media platforms like Facebook.
his 16 employees, nearly half are on temporary visas while they wait for
green cards. Sankhla's own green card application was rejected once. He
is trying again.
A new immigration law will have a big effect on
his entire family. His wife, an engineer at Netflix, is on an H-1B visa,
and his brother, headed here from Bombay, has one, too.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service