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What it’s like to live and work in H-1B visa limbo

Sally Herships Mar 22, 2017
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A woman holds an American flag during a naturalization oath ceremony in Boston.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

This is the part in a story where normally we’d introduce you to a character to help draw you in and set the scene. But almost all the foreign workers on H-1B visas that I talked to — and I spoke to more than 10 people — won’t let me tell you their names. They’re too scared.

I received a lot of emails like these:

 

 

And this:

H-1Bs are special visas that let foreign workers hold down jobs in the states. The visas are meant for workers in specialty occupations “including but not limited to scientists, engineers, or computer programmers.”

Each H-1B visa is tied to a specific job. Lose your job, lose the visa. So in addition to all the recent anti-immigrant sentiment, H-1B workers are also afraid of ruffling feathers at work. And many H-1B visa holders have applied for green cards and fear alienating naturalization officials. Hence, the many requests to keep conversations about their status private.

Then I heard from 38-year-old Adi Aggarwal. He works in engineering and lives with his wife in Houston. A couple of years ago, they bought a house. He was tired of living in limbo.

“I kind of — I almost, like, woke up one day and decided that I’m not really going to let this hold me back,” he said. “Because we have to live our lives. I might not get a green card for the next 10 years. Does it mean that I’m not going to buy a car, not have a house and not live my life?”

Things may be getting even more difficult for applicants competing for visas. A new bill,  the “Protect and Grow American Jobs Act,” would double the minimum wage for some H-1B visa workers to $130,000. Just 85,000 of the coveted visas get handed out each year. Last year, the number of applications tripled. When there are more applicants than visas, winners are chosen via a lottery. Green cards for permanent residency are handed out based on country of birth. There’s a disproportionate number of Indian applicants for green cards. The backlog is so bad, some workers who applied 10 years ago are just getting answers today. Others are still waiting and trying to maintain a state of quiet perfection at work while they do so. 

But some foreign workers say the stigma of an H-1B can be so strong that problems begin the moment they walk into the door at a job interview. Like a California scientist who said potential employers were immediately turned off by the prospect of navigating the complex bureaucratic system, filling out paperwork and paying government and legal fees.

“The minute they hear you need visa sponsorship, they’ll get back to you. It’s very clear at that time you’re not getting the job,” she said. 

H-1B holders have to re-apply every three years. If your visa doesn’t get renewed, you have just two months to leave the country. Some workers said that after President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders, they canceled long-planned vacations. Others said they hadn’t left the country in years. Both groups fear being stopped at the airport either here or in India and jeopardizing their jobs. “We’re scared to go back,” is a phrase that comes up often when talking to H-1B holders.

For these workers, something as ordinary as signing a lease or buying a car comes with extra stress.

“It definitely impacts your self-confidence,” Aggarwal said. “Like when you sign your lease, on an apartment. You start wondering, ‘OK, I’m signing a one-year lease. What if I get laid off? I have to leave.’ So it tends to hold you back. You cannot really make any long-term plans because you’re not really sure if you’re going to be here in five years. It has nothing to do with how good at you are at your job, it’s this uncertainty of your residency status.”

His wife Shail Singh, a scientist, is in a similar visa limbo. She was on a H-1B visa but now has a H4 — visas typically reserved for spouses of H-1B visa holders. They both said they are grateful for their lives here.

“This country has been great to us, and I came here as a student. And I’ve got two degrees,” Aggarwal said. “I’ve been in the workforce for eight years now, and no matter what happens, I would never do it any other way. I mean, we have formed some really great relationships at school, at work, our neighbors, our friends.”

Singh said, “I’ve spent almost a third of my life in this country. I feel I am who I am because of what this country has offered to me. I have grown as a person, and it makes me want to be a better person every day.” However, she said that while she doesn’t want to come off as political, regardless of which party is in charge, the H-1B system needs an upgrade.

“You notice that when your peers have moved ahead and you’re still on an H-1B,”  Singh said. “It’s not because you were not smart enough or you were not talented enough.” It might be because your boss is worried, she said. What if that promotion you want requires you to travel? You could get stopped at the airport on the way back, stuck overseas. Singh said she doesn’t hear enough stories from people like her.

“These stories need to be told,” she said. “Lottery is not a way to determine people’s fate.”

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