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High-skilled immigrants aren't optimistic about reforms

Sandeep Chandra and Pallavi Adyanthaya have been watching the debate surrounding immigration reform closely. They haven't heard many people addressing the problems they face as high-skilled immigrants.
Sandeep Chandra and Pallavi Adyanthaya have been watching the debate surrounding immigration reform closely. They haven't heard many people addressing the problems they face as high-skilled immigrants.
David Wagner

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We know what lawmakers and CEOs think about high-skilled immigrants. They want more of them. Tech companies have been lobbying hard to get more visas for these workers, and Washington has been listening. But what do the high-skilled immigrants want?

From the Fronteras Desk, reporter David Wagner found that they have very different ideas about how to fix the system.

At issue are H-1B visas, which give foreign workers with advanced degrees and specialty skills the right to work here in the U.S. This year, demand was particularly high. The number of applications surpassed the number of available visas in just five days.

As a result, H-1Bs won't be doled out based on candidates' qualifications. They'll go to whoever gets their name pulled in a random lottery.

Nathan Fletcher is a senior director at Qualcomm, a major employer of H-1B workers in San Diego. He thinks the system is getting to be a bit absurd.

"You have a group of students which are American educated students, often just a few miles away at UCSD that have the skills and the talents that we're looking for," he said. "And they can get a visa to study and learn, and the taxpayers can subsidize their education, but they can't get a visa to stay and work."

But how do can we fix a program for high-skilled immigrant workers that isn't working? The Senate's proposed plan would multiply the number of H-1B visas handed out in coming years. Aside from a few other tweaks and adjustments, they basically want to take the program currently in place and expand it.

But immigrants who have actually gone through this program say that solution misses the mark.

"I think increasing the cap is not going to help," said Sandeep Chandra, an Indian national who has been living in the U.S. for the last 13 years. Sandeep and his wife Pallavi Adyanthaya are both here on H-1B visas. He works at the San Diego Supercomputer Center, and she works at Qualcomm.

They worry that lawmakers won't address the main problem they and so many others in their position face. After all these years, they still haven't been able to get green cards.

Even though Chandra and Adyanthaya plan to settle down here, their future in the U.S. is uncertain. There's a possibility that the project Sandeep is working on could end next year.

"If I don't find a job," he said, "I am possibly looking at going back. I would have to leave. You put in 13, 15 years and you are still faced with that situation."

H-1B visas allow workers to stay in the U.S. only on the condition that they keep their jobs. And if workers seek out new opportunities once they've here, they have to forfeit their spot in line for a green card.

Adyanthaya says some employers are exploiting these restrictions on worker mobility. She thinks Qualcomm treats H-1B workers fairly, but she's seen other, less scrupulous companies paying foreign workers lower wages.

"They do get to leverage that aspect as well," she said. "They don't just tie you in, but they tie you in at that wage. Because they know you're not going anywhere."

Ironically, Adyanthaya's point echoes those made by critics of the very program that allows her to work here. These visas are supposed to plug a skills gap. Companies like Microsoft say American schools simply aren't graduating enough citizens in high-tech fields, so they need to import workers from overseas.

But economists at the Economic Policy Institute and consultants from the Boston Consulting Group say these companies are greatly exaggerating that skills gap, if it even exists at all. They accuse employers of favoring foreign workers because they can't quit, and they'll work for a lot less than citizens.

Chandra and Adyanthaya have an idea that might address the concerns of such critics and tech companies.

"For people who come here and get a master's degree, they shouldn't have to go through a visa process," Chandra said. "They should just go through an immigration process and figure out a way to get green cards."

If the number of green cards was boosted instead of H-1B visas, employers would still have a lot more applicants to choose from. And the immigrants themselves would no longer have to put up with unfair treatment.

"We're doing everything right, we're going the legal route," Adyanthaya said. "The least we want at the end of the day is a level playing field with everyone else."

But the couple's suggestions might get drowned out in Washington. With 11 million undocumented immigrants possibly getting a path to citizenship, things could get tense. Chandra and Adyanthaya say they're not hopeful that reform will put them any closer to a green card.