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H-1B workers stuck in home countries

Raymond Thibodeaux May 7, 2009

H-1B workers stuck in home countries

Raymond Thibodeaux May 7, 2009


Tess Vigeland: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. She said her agency is stepping up checks on the H-1B visa program. Those are the visas that let highly skilled foreign professionals work in the U.S. when no qualified American can be found.

Professionals from India — often tech workers — have generally taken a big chunk of those visas. But a lot of them are now finding it harder to get them renewed. So they’re stuck in their home country. Raymond Thibodeaux has more from New Delhi.

Raymond Thibodeaux: About two dozen people meet for lunch at a cafe in an upscale neighborhood of New Delhi. They have a lot in common: they’re Indians who work in the U.S. on H-1B visas. They have advanced degrees from American universities in specialized fields like science, medicine and engineering. And they’ve all been in limbo here for months, just waiting.

DHIRAJ JOSHI: We weren’t even warned about this.

That’s Dhiraj Joshi, who’s spent years in the U.S. designing image recognition software for Eastman Kodak. He came back to India to get married. He thought it would be a two or three week trip. But U.S. authorities subjected his H-1B visa renewal to additional — and time-consuming — security checks because he works with a technology that they say could pose a threat to American national security if put in the wrong hands.

JOSHI: They asked me for my research details, like my present, past and future research plans. They gave me a paper, a red slip, saying it would take four to six weeks, but I had no idea that it would take so long.

So long, in his case, has been four months. His friend, Himani Sharma, came back to visit family. She’s a post-doctoral researcher who’s normally based outside of Boston. She’s been waiting for about three months, long enough for her American employer to put her on unpaid leave until her visa issue is cleared up.

HIMANI SHARMA: This is a mental trauma for our family. We have mortgages to pay. We have responsibilities to take care of. If I lose my job, another house is going on foreclosure. I know that. Who’s responsible for that?

Falling behind on mortgages or car loan payments is one thing, but many of these H-1B visa holders are also falling behind on their work projects to the frustration their U.S. bosses and colleagues.

The Indians understand the need for rigorous checks for national security purposes, but some complain the delays are a deliberate tool to deter foreign workers during the current economic downturn. David Donahue, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services, denies that.

DAVID DONAHUE: A certain small percentage — about 3 percent worldwide — of our cases do require extra administrative checks. We do not like it when it takes this long for those to come through.

Donahue says wait times are increasing because of rising global demand for U.S. visas, especially in places like India, where applications have shot up 65 percent over the last two years.

Back at the cafe, many of the H-1B holders are growing impatient. Some are rethinking their options, and looking for jobs right here in India.

In New Delhi, I’m Raymond Thibodeaux for Marketplace.

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