Indian Workers in U.S. Fear Trump H-1 Billion Visa Crackdown

Express News Global

Updated: February 27, 2017 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)

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NEW DELHI-– Santosh Pillai was wooed to work in the U.S. for his coding skills more than a decade ago and has built a good life in Cupertino, Calif. He considers it home and is awaiting approval for his green card–but is now worried his family could be forced leave.

As President Donald Trump follows through on his campaign promises to tighten America’s borders, Mr. Pillai fears he, his wife and two children may have to return to India.

“It’s like getting kicked in the stomach,” said the 51-year-old, who works for an American computer-chip maker that he declined to name, fearful of added scrutiny. “The future is very uncertain.”

A draft of an executive order for Mr. Trump’s consideration calls for the government to re-examine a range of visa programs to ensure they protect “the jobs, wages and well-being of United States workers.” This includes the H-1B visa program, which provides visas for highly skilled foreign workers.

Adding to the unease, two Indian nationals who worked as engineers at technology company Garmin Ltd. were shot Wednesday at a bar in suburban Kansas by a man who witnesses say used racial slurs before opening fire. One of the Indian men died.

Critics say the H-1B program, which is supposed to be used to bring in workers with skills that are scarce in the U.S., is too often used to bring in tech workers–largely from India–who are willing to work for less than Americans.

Three of the top five H-1B employers in 2014, the latest year for which data is available, were outsourcing firms from India, according to Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data analyzed by Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University.

Between them, Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., Infosys Ltd. and Wipro Ltd. brought in more than 12,000 new H-1B workers that year. By comparison, large U.S. consumer-technology firms Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc. brought in about 2,000 such workers in all.

Demand is so high for H-1B visas that for the last four years the number of applications has surpassed the entire fiscal year’s 85,000 supply in under one week, triggering a lottery.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Trump vowed to “end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program.”

U.S. tech companies are wary of new restrictions.

“It is the enlightened immigration policy of this country that even made it possible for me to come here in the first place, and gave me all this opportunity,” Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella, who was born in India, told employees last month, according to a transcript posted on the company’s website. A Microsoft spokeswoman declined to comment on the company’s use of the H-1B program.

Blake Irving, chief executive of GoDaddy Inc., said in a LinkedIn post earlier this month that there are “currently more than half a million high-skill IT and computer science jobs sitting unfilled in the U.S. today,” and that the executive order, if signed, “risks serious consequences for US-based tech companies’ ability to hire elite global talent.”

Google and Apple declined to comment when queried about their use of the visa program.

Anticipating policy changes, foreign tech workers are putting life plans on hold and questioning career decisions, while companies that have grown to depend on them are wondering if they have to change their business models.

Some H-1B visa holders are putting off travel and starting to formulate backup plans in the event of a crackdown. Most were unwilling to be named in this article, concerned they could be targeted if they spoke out.

H-1B visas are valid for three years and can be renewed for another three years. After that, workers can apply for green cards, though the wait often takes years, during which they continue working on H-1Bs.

The looming crackdown is causing rifts between Silicon Valley firms and Indian outsourcers, with some U.S. technology firms eager to close loopholes in the program that can be abused by outsourcers. Several bills in Congress call for raising the minimum salary of H-1B visa recipients, a move perceived to be targeting outsourcing companies.

India’s $108 billion outsourcing industry would be hard-hit by a clampdown, as their business model depends on sending armies of engineers to the U.S. to work. The National Association of Software and Services Companies, an Indian trade group, cut its growth forecast for the sector following Mr. Trump’s election.

Infosys Chief Executive Vishal Sikka said it was unfair to suggest Indian companies were taking jobs from Americans. But in an interview last month, he noted that outsourcers likely would have to adjust. Infosys and others may have to “train and hire more locally,” he said, “and use the visa as necessary and as permitted.”

TCS and Wipro declined to comment.

Sankalp Modi, a 38-year-old Ph.D. and H-1B holder who has lived in the U.S. for close to a decade, helps build software used by engineers and scientists for MathWorks, a Natick, Mass.-based computing software maker.

While he is sympathetic to Americans who might have lost their jobs to outsourcers abusing the visa program, he is certain he is “playing by the rules,” and hasn’t put any American out of work. His backup plans include moving to Canada or Australia, and he is about to take the English-language test required for visas to those countries–just in case.

To keep more cash at hand, Mr. Modi cut back his retirement savings and put off sending his daughter to preschool, and his wife canceled her plans to launch her own tech startup.

Kapil Potdar, 38, an Indian citizen on an H-1B visa who develops e-commerce software for a New Jersey firm, said he and his wife are concerned about traveling outside the country at the same time. If one of them was to be blocked from re-entering the country due to sudden changes in policy, the other would need to be present in the U.S. to sell their home, he said.

Write to Newley Purnell at newley.purnell @wsj.com


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