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H-1B visa just a ticket to the way station

H-1B paperwork

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Kai Ryssdal: Green cards aren't actually green, but you'll need some to get one. As of today, it costs almost a thousand dollars to file for permanent residence in this country.

That's a painful bite for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Closer to the top, though, highly-skilled foreigners aren't so keen on staying here forever. Instead, they're more interested in what are called H1-B visas. Which is a little strange, to be honest, because H-1B's used to be a straight shot to a residency and eventually citizenship.

Aswini Anburajan reports green cards aren't the same draw they used to be.


Aswini Anburajan: At I-Flex Solutions offices in Midtown Manhattan, workers tap away at keyboards, chat by the coffee maker and are constantly checking their blackberries.

It's a typical American workplace. Except almost all the employees are young Indian professionals, who come to the U.S. on H-1B visas.

I-Flex, headquartered in India, is the world's largest producer of banking software. Its workers don't necessarily see the U.S. as their final destination.

I-Flex Worker: Wherever I wanted to go, the company gave me an opportunity to go. Earlier, I was in Japan for about six times through the same company. So it was like India, Japan, Tokyo, back to India, then Japan, India, and now U.S., India and now back to U.S.

H-1B visas were first issued in 1990, and were seen by immigrants as the route to a much-coveted green card that would allow them to stay in the U.S.

Shahab Alam oversees I-Flex's globetrotters. He says workers now see the U.S. as more of a way station.

Shahab Alam: Most of the people coming through us have no intention of settling in the United States. These are folks who are coming here to do a job, have fun while they can in the United States and then use this experience in different parts of the world.

That attitude riles Ron Hira. He's a public policy professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. He says H-1B visas were never intended to let these workers become globetrotters who work for America's competitors.

Ron Hira: It's been sold by many of the industry lobbyists, including folks from Oracle and Microsoft, as a way of preventing outsourcing. Well, the leading users of the H-1B program are off-shore outsourcing firms whose really sole business model is about moving tasks and jobs from America to lower-cost countries.

Hira says that green cards allow these workers to stay in the U.S., but very few of H-1B visa holders are sponsored for them. In 2006, I-Flex applied for more than 900 H-1B visas, but only five green cards.

What companies want, Hira says — including American companies — is a highly-mobile workforce that they can shift anywhere in the world.

Hira: We want to attract the best and brightest and we want to keep them here. What's interesting about these off-shore outsourcing firms is that there's no pretense of sponsoring workers for green cards.

And it's not just Indian firms doing this. IBM, Accenture, Cognizant and Deloitte and Touche applied for more than 30,000 H-1B visas in 2006, but only 767 green cards.

Marketplace contacted each of these companies about their use of the H-1B program. They either declined to comment or did not respond.

Shahab Alam acknowledges that I-Flex is using the H-1B visa simply as a means of labor mobility. But he says that even American workers understand that to stay competitive, you have to be willing to pack your bags.

Alam: We in I-Flex, we receive close to over 200 American nationals applying to us, willing to work with us in any part of the world. And this is 200 every month.

New York to Mumbai and back to the States. It might be an itinerary many Americans may get to know well.

In New York, I'm Aswini Anburajan for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Our report was produced in collaboration with the New School in New York City.

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