With immigration reform being a central topic in Washington, there’s talk of reforming the H-1B program, possibly increasing the number of visas made available each year. Dice asked me to share some of my thoughts about the program, hence this article. I’m here in the U.S. on an H-1B, currently working as a senior database developer.
Why come to the U.S.?
Many people wonder what prompts individuals to apply for H-1Bs. For me, and most others in the tech industry, the overarching reason is career growth. The United States is still is the best place to work if you’re a software developer, period. I didn’t intend to settle here at the start and I’m still not sure I’ll remain, even though my green card is in-process. My thinking has only been aggravated by the H-1B program’s rules. Let me start by pointing out some lesser-known facts:
The Special Report:
- First, the visa is granted based on the needs of a specific company, not any one individual. Basically, the company says, “I need this dude, so please grant him a visa.” The problem for the visa holder is that if the company fires you, the visa becomes invalid.
- If that happens, you have 15 days to find another job. If you don’t, you’re required to return to your native country.
As you already know, it’s practically impossible to find a job in 15 days. Even if the gods smile on you and you’re successful, you can’t just walk in and start working. The new employer has to file an “H-1B transfer” petition, so your visa can be linked with the new company. This process can take up to three months. For a $1,500 fee – paid either by the guest worker or the employer -- the case will be adjudicated within 15 days. On top of that, if the USCIS decides that your case needs further scrutiny, even more time can pass before you’re fully approved to start. Think about it. You have a stellar skill set and you can get right to work, but the company may find out three months later that its petition has been denied. What business wants to take that kind of risk? As for you, if the transfer is denied you have to leave the country immediately. I have personally seen what people in such a situation have to go through – my friend from college was laid off in 2008 from his company. He was desperate to find a job, but was obviously unable to find anything within 15 days. Luckily, his wife was also working on an H-1B, and he was able to obtain a “dependent” H4 visa. He couldn’t work on a dependent visa, but at least he was able to stay in the country with his family. Others might not be so lucky. Another ex-colleague had bought a house while here on an H-1B. When our company started laying off employees, he sold off the house in a panic, fearing that he might have to leave the country. Though in the end he kept his job, he had already suffered thousands of dollars of losses by selling his house well below market price. It boils down to this: An H-1B who’s laid off will very likely have to head home. It won’t matter if you bought a house or have kids who are U.S. citizens. This fear forces many H-1Bs to compromise on their career choices, settling for lower salaries and working for the same employer even when it would be smarter to move.
Many people believe H-1Bs earn less money than their American-born counterparts. In my experience, this isn’t always true. Many of my visa-holding friends are paid handsomely. However, they got better pay packages only when they were able to leave underpaying employers, which, as we’ve seen, is a risky and complicated process. That doesn’t mean underpayment doesn’t happen. I blame this on the “bonded labor” nature of the visa: You can’t leave your employer, but your employer can leave you. This means the employee has no choice but to accept the salary being offered.
Getting a Green Card
Most H-1B workers look forward to getting their green card – some friends tell me that you feel like you’re let out of a cage once you do. And not without reason. The green card provides freedom from all the headaches of the H-1B. For example, you can work wherever you want, for whomever you want. However, getting there is tough, especially for people from China, India and Mexico. There are only a handful of green cards issued every year, on a per-country basis. Since there are so many people here from these three countries, the backlog is huge: It can take up to 10 years to get the documents. Again, this is extremely disadvantageous for employees. Those whose companies sponsored their green card in 2004 are most likely still working for the same employer, often at the same designation and pay scale. Imagine that -- nine years at the same place with no promotion and hardly any pay hike. On top of this, the wait time has no relation to your skillset, education level or experience. You could be a Ph.D., or a co-founder of the next big Internet company. You’ll still need to wait in the same line as everyone else.
Starting a Company
I’ve always wanted to start a company, but because of my visa status I can’t move forward. Technically I can, but the company I start couldn’t hold my visa. So, essentially, I’d have to work simultaneously for my own company and the employer that holds my visa. Combine that with the nine-year wait for a green card, and it’s hard to imagine I can ever achieve my dreams here. Given that the U.S. is the hotbed of entrepreneurship, it’s ironic that the hardest thing for an immigrant to do is start a business.
Is It Worth It?
For H1-1Bs, the program is a mixed bag. You get to work on cool stuff for good money, but you can’t easily move on to the next cool thing and earn more. You get to settle here for six years, buy a house, etc., but it’s a pain to get a green card and permanently settle here if you want to. You get to learn the ins-and-outs of a business, but you can’t start your own. Some of my friends who got their green card back in the 90s, when it took them just a year, are happily settled here and say it was all worth it. Others waited in line for several years, got frustrated and went back home for a job or to start a business. Most others, like me, think it will be worth it and want to further their careers here, but are hampered until the government’s final decisions are made.
What’s the Solution?
Personally, I don’t believe increasing the number of visas is going to benefit employees, though obviously it will help the sponsoring companies. From my point of view, H-1B workers should have the flexibility of working where they want to. The direct effect would be that employers would no longer be able to underpay or exploit guest workers. And, they’d no longer have financial incentives to replace Americans with H-1Bs. It really would become all about filling the skills gaps. Actually, I don’t think a visa should be linked to a particular company at all. It should be an individual visa, linked to the person not the business interest. To be eligible, individuals should have to meet specific requirements, such as having a job offer from a U.S. company, or at least two years of work experience in a niche field or with an in-demand skill, like Hadoop or Android. Or, they should be experts in their field, recognized via technical publications, patents and the like. Or, a company’s senior executives should certify that you’d be an indispensable asset. Finally, the visa processing time should be shortened to less than a week, so that the individual can start working for the company immediately. To keep individuals from exploiting the program, the visa fees should be set relatively high and the requirements for listed jobs should be quantified with certifications, salary requirements, years of experience, academic levels and the like. Visas should be granted for six years, during which time the visa holder can work for a company, start their own business or even change professions. After that, they should be required to demonstrate how they’ve excelled in their field by submitting certifications, recommendations and other measurable information. If they succeed, they should get a green card immediately. I think this sort of flexible, individual-based approach would address many of the issues that weigh down the current system.
The H-1B program is often derided as unfair to American workers, but it’s also not an easy path for those who seek to live and work in -- and contribute to – the United States. Only thoughtful reform will address the concerns of both sides. Samwise is a database developer and H-1B worker for a major company in New York. He asked to use his Dice pseudonym in order to speak freely on the topic of H-1Bs.