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Silicon Valley Engineers Stuck in Immigration Reform Limbo

A deadlocked Congress defers the 'American Dream' for employees with H-1B visas.

This is part of a series on immigration that is running across 12 Patch sites.

Originally from India, Sanjay Patel worked as a product manager for eBay in San Jose for three years after the company sponsored his H-1B visa. 

Patel—his name has been changed in this story to protect his identity—would like to remain in the United States, and his desire to obtain a permanent residency card, or a green card, weighs heavily on his mind.

“The six-year limit bothers many people,” Patel said, about the minimum period it takes to get a green card. “If you are trying to get your green card, then six years is a limited amount of time.”

Many U.S.-based companies have turned to foreign countries to supply them with employees, like Patel, who possess the specialized skills needed for technology jobs.

Often these professionals arrive with limited work visas and create new homes here for themselves and their families. But if they don’t get their permanent resident cards within the six years their H-1B visas are valid, they usually have to uproot themselves and return home. 

The emotional toll can be overwhelming, and the stalled immigration reform debate in Congress doesn’t help matters.

“It’s been difficult for them to listen to the debate when they are helping develop products, helping U.S. competitiveness, and then they hear Americans attack foreigners,” said Cynthia Lange, attorney and managing partner for the Santa Clara office of the global international immigration law firm, Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen and Loewy, LLP.

“Up until now, Congress has been deadlocked on doing anything with immigration. It has stopped movement on other changes that would help people.”

Immigration reform has a unique effect upon the Silicon Valley. It’s home to Fortune 500 technology companies that hire people from all over the world, lured with the H1-B visa, issued to professional workers who have the appropriate degrees or a combination of education and experience.  

When their visas expire, however, more often than not these professionals have only 30 days to get out of the country, according to Gali Gordon, an immigration attorney in San Francisco.

Patel said his visa had been extended for another three years, and he has already started to work with one of the company’s lawyers to try to get his green card. But, explained Lange, because of the U.S. quota to approve for permanent residency 5 percent of the applicants from every country in the world—for engineers from highly represented countries like India and China—the wait then becomes longer.

His job with eBay appears to be working out, and Patel—who received his master’s degree from Arizona State University in 2005—said he believes he’ll be able to renew his H-1B visa every year until he receives his green card. His wife, who accompanied him to the United States on the H4 visa issued to immediate family members of H-1B visa holders, would also have her visa renewed.

According to Lange, the cost to apply for visas continue to increase, though the employers, not the employees, pay for them. Still, the cost could preclude smaller companies from recruiting and applying for visas for their workers, she explained.

Patel acknowledged that he was one of the fortunate ones.

Before the approval of the “American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act” in October 2000, upon the expiration of an H-1B, visa-holders would have had to “yank their families and kids out of school and had to leave,” said Lange.

Now Patel’s wife has a chance to remain, too.

“Her H4 visa will be extended when mine is, and she will receive her green card when I do,” Patel said.

According Gordon, if a person’s green-card process has been pending for at least one year, the H-1B visa can be extended past the six-year mark. This would apply to the spouse’s H4, too, which has more restrictions than an H-1B visa and does not allow people to work. Patel’s wife, however, can attend school, and she has decided to pursue her master’s degree at San Jose State University.

But ever since the economic boom turned to bust in the U.S., the number of immigrants getting H-1B visas, their renewals or a green card has dropped.

According to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) H-1B Program Report figures, in fiscal year 2007 there were petitions 304,877 H-1B filed and 281,444 approved. In 2008, the number filed decreased to 288,764 as did the number approved to 276,252. The prospects for H-1B petitioners looked even glimmer in 2009, when filings dropped 15 percent to 246,647 and approvals fell 22 percent to 214,271 compared to 2008.

Of those approvals, the number of H1-Bs approved for continuing employment, that is, renewals, in 2009 was 127,971—a sharp decreased of 23 percent from 2008 when the number approved was 166,917. Renewal approvals had actually increased slightly from 2007 to 2008 by 3.3 percent.

Approximately 48 percent of H-1Bs approved in 2009 were for workers born in India, according to the USCIS. H-1B figures are not yet available for 2010.

For the government’s fiscal year that started April 1, 2010, it took 10 months to reach the 65,000 H-1Bs for initial filers mandated by Congress. In contrast in 2008, when companies were still hiring foreign professionals, that cap was reached within days, according to Compete America, a coalition that advocates for reform of U.S. immigration policy.

For 2012 fiscal year, which began on April 1, U.S. companies will file H-1B visa applications until the cap is reached, Gordon explained. Then H-1B visas go into effect on Oct. 1, 2011 at which point the employee can start work under the visa, she continued.

Also even though only 65,000 H-1B visas are available each year, multiple companies can file on behalf of a new foreign worker. Renewals do not count towards the government cap.

In recent years, Mountain View-based Google has recruited fewer H-1B eligible employees than in years past, according to Google spokesman Dan Martin.

In 2007, Google filed 641 H-1B visa applications, with 583 approved. In 2008, 424 were filed, with 334 approved; and in 2009, only 183 H-1B visas were filed, and all were approved, according to Martin.

Both eBay and Mountain View-based Symantec declined to release the number of foreign workers on H-1B visas at their companies. An eBay spokesperson said the number of visa holders “aren’t statistics that we track” and that “for privacy reasons, this isn’t a topic we can discuss.”

However, the USCIS did provide figures of approved petitions in 2009 that show eBay received 24 and Symantec 57 H-1B visas for employees. The largest number of H1-Bs went to Intel–723–followed by Cisco at 308 and Oracle 272.

Meanwhile, until Congress changes the immigration laws, companies can only give employees a month to find work or obtain another visa, once it’s expired.

Patel said that if he’s unable to get his green card in time, he won’t stay in the U.S. illegally, because he wouldn’t want to risk getting caught. In India, he could earn the same pay, and both he and his wife would be able to work successfully, he said.

“It’s a limited amount of time,” he said, “and in that situation, if I don’t get another job, then I pack my bags.”

This article was produced through a collaboration of PatchU and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at San Jose State University. PatchU is a Patch Media initiative to build strong relationships with colleges and universities across the country. The mission of PatchU is to connect students and faculty to opportunities at Patch.  

For more information, email PatchU@patch.com or follow us on Facebook.

Rudy Torrent May 07, 2011 at 12:59 AM
The internet is filled with horror stories like these: DogMattic Aug 4, 2009 3:24 AM GMT Texas Instruments just fired 3600 Americans ... and is applying for about 232 MORE foreigners. I was one of those replaced ... after 15 years dedicated service, and 12 years serving my country in the US Military. I'm all for hiring the best & brightest ... which according to my performance reviews, GPA & publications ... includes ME! Companies that hire H-1B's below market wages, or who lay-off qualified Americans ... are TRAITORS! If Cruz wasn't intent on currying (pardon the pun) favors from her sponsors in the high-tech junta, she would have done some research before inciting this rhetorical race war.
Claudia Cruz May 07, 2011 at 01:15 AM
Donna... there was indeed a comment that incited violence and use of force, which I deleted.
Claudia Cruz May 07, 2011 at 01:18 AM
I never took a position as to whether they were displaced or not. I wrote what I observed. "My racially tinged attack against Black and Hispanic IT professionals" is your reply? Again, attacking me and distorting my words.
Doc Savage May 07, 2011 at 05:24 AM
Here is another poor soul spreading the bad word for more foreign talent through the H-1B program. http://online.wsj.com/article/BT-CO-20110506-716104.html I suggest we give them a bit of our time and attention, this one here is a lost cause
Priyanka Sharma-Sindhar May 07, 2011 at 06:24 AM
At Patch, we check our facts before we publish them. We stand by the reporting done by Ms. Nowell and Ms. Cruz. The conversation on this forum has turned disrespectful and we must close this thread. Thank you for reading.

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