HYDERABAD, India – It is a balmy spring morning in this hilly southern India capital of some 7 million. Once a cultural and gem trading center known as the City of Pearls, it is now better known as the home of the high-technology hub dubbed “Cyberabad.”
Google, Microsoft and other tech giants have built gleaming campuses here. Some of India’s largest outsourcing companies, which provide skilled Indian tech workers within the country and abroad, have set up shop here as well. All are tapping into India’s growing population of young IT and engineering talent, whose members flock here by the thousands seeking work.
But thousands of workers here have a higher goal: To obtain a guest worker visa that will allow them to take their high-tech talents to America.
As the sun rises, hundreds circle an ancient temple on the outskirts of the city, praying to the Hindu deity Balaji for specialty-occupation visa, familiarly known as an H-1B. Those who receive them can spend three to six years working in the U.S. – a ticket, they believe, to a better, more financially secure future.
The odds are far from in their favor: Worker must be chosen from among thousands of hopefuls by a company in need of certain skills. An application in his behalf must be made, at a cost of thousands of dollars, and approved by U.S. officials. And, for the past several years, getting that far means having perhaps a 1-in-4 chance of success in a lottery among the huge number of applications.
Those who are successful face other concerns: Navigating a system in which their employer controls their visa, and thus their legal status, leaving some feeling like indentured servants with no power over working hours or conditions. Having wages sometimes shaved through fees assessed by sponsoring companies, who may contract them out for other work.
And increasingly, being pointed to by critics of the H-1B program, including GOP presidential candgidates Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, as a threat to U.S. workers.
Raja Ram Mohan, 31, a computer engineer, seems unconcerned with the growing H-1B debate, his thoughts only on the possibilities before him. This morning, he took 2½ hours to circle the temple more than 100 times – an act of gratitude to the deity for his success in obtaining an H-1B. His wife, praying for a visa for herself, accompanied him.
“We’ve never been to America,” Mohan said. “I hear the Texas weather is somewhat like here? Maybe we can go there.”
Since 1990, the H-1B visa program has allowed U.S. companies to hire foreign workers with special skills, including physicians, engineers, accountants, even fashion models. Increasingly, the program has been dominated by U.S. technology companies seeking software analysts, engineers and other IT workers.
Applications for the visas increased by 90 percent from 2013 to 2016, when a record 236,000 requests were submitted within days of the April 1 opening of the application period.
Need for the visas is urgent in Houston, with its oil and biomedical sectors. Employers here requested nearly 13,000 H-1B visas in 2013, the most in the country after New York City, according to an analysis of federal data. Nearly 6,000 of those were approved that year, a Brookings analysis found.
Since 2004, the cap on these visas has been set at 85,000 annually – 65,000 for foreign workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, another 20,000 reserved for those with advanced degrees from U.S. universities. Trade agreements reserve up to 6,800 of those visas for skilled Chilean and Singaporean workers.
Exempt from the cap are skilled workers employed in higher education, nonprofit research or government research. Also not counted in the cap are extensions of an H-1B for a second three-year term.
Indian companies, including Tata Consulting Services, Wipro and Infosys, submit tens of thousands of visa requests on behalf of U.S. clients each year. Critics say they are effectively gaming the computerized lottery to dole out visas – depriving smaller companies of the chance to fairly compete for H-1Bs and taking visas that could go to more highly skilled, higher-paid workers for low-level, lower-paid programmers.
According to Department of Labor data, the top four Indian outsourcing companies successfully filed about 66,000 Labor Condition Applications in 2015, which is the first step toward obtaining an H-1B visa.
While many Silicon Valley companies such as Apple and Intel tend to hire more highly skilled workers and pay six-figure salaries, the bulk of H-1B jobs go to lower-level IT workers who are often paid close to the minimum allowed by the visa program, about $60,000, says Ronil Hira, a Howard University public policy professor and researcher at the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank focused on labor issues.
Hira, like others critical of the H-1B program, says most U.S. companies are not using the H-1B visa “as a way to alleviate a shortage of STEM-educated U.S. workers; they use it to primarily cut labor costs.”
Others argue that the proliferation of outsourcing via H-1B, especially in the case of India, is leading to the export of skills acquired in the U.S., as guest workers’ visas run out and they move back to jobs overseas.
U.S. companies also have been hit for allegedly replacing American workers with lower-paid foreigners. Disney was sued last year after some 250 IT jobs were eliminated and the work given to Indian tech workers on H-1Bs. The U.S. Justice Department investigated Southern California Edison in 2015 after the utility company laid off 500 IT workers while having some of them train H-1B workers, but said it found no violations of labor laws or discrimination against American workers.
Fraud, worker abuse
Fraud and alleged abuse of workers also have been issues in the H-1B program. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents initiated more than 200 fraud investigations into H-1B and related H and L visas, and made more than 110 criminal arrests from 2013 to 2015. Lawsuits and prosecutions also have occurred over guest workers reportedly being underpaid or forced to kick back some of their earnings to their sponsoring companies, which have control of their visas.
Daniel Showalter, a group supervisor with Homeland Security investigations in Southern California, said that the way the H-1B program has developed, with the huge staffing firms flooding the system with applications, has “taken it away from the intent of the visa itself.” Showalter says the system as it is now opens the door to fraud schemes and worker abuse.
The most vocal critics of the H-1B program argue that the program deprives Americans of jobs and needs to be reformed. The most recent action: an increase in the cost of the visa application for major staffing companies like Tata and Infosys. A provision slipped into the 2015 omnibus federal spending bill doubled the fee to $4,000 for such companies.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin, a strong immigration supporter, have teamed on a bill that would forbid the replacement of a domestic worker by an H-1B visa holder and prioritize visa allocations to foreigners holding advanced degrees.
Major hit expected
While Infosys and Tata refused to comment on visa-related queries for this story, it is clear the Indian IT industry has been unnerved by these changes.
Nasscom, the primary trade association of India’s IT and software services industry, estimated that the visa fee increase could cost the sector hundreds of millions of dollars annually. More than 80 percent of the industry’s $120 billion in annual revenue is from IT service exports, including H-1B workers, said R. Chandrasekhar, Nasscom’s president.
The U.S. actions are “discriminatory to India,” he said. “At a time when both countries are targeting trade of $500 billion, and are striving to work together, it can hurt economic policy between the two countries,” he said.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised concerns about the bill with President Barack Obama after it was passed late last year. Then in early March, India took its complaints to the World Trade Organization. If the U.S. and India can’t negotiate a settlement of the complaint, India can ask the WTO to review the situation.
“It is a trade issue,” Chandrasekhar said. “We see the restrictions sought to be imposed that will create barriers for Indian industry. It is quite worrisome.”
Last fiscal year, more than two-thirds of H-1B visa holders came from India. Some 15 percent of those guest workers came from Hyderabad alone. So many visa applications have come from the city as the tech and outsourcing industries have expanded there that the U.S. opened a Hyderabad consulate in 2008, which has issued 130,000 H-1Bs since, said consul chief Jamie Fouss. “The volume is as much as New Delhi now,” he said.
Still, thousands of other workers seeking the visa miss out. While the large outsourcing firms grab the majority of visas, it can often take workers for an Indian company or an India-based branch of a U.S. company up to five years of service before being considered as an H-1B candidate.
A 30-year-old Hyderabad management consultant is a typical example of would-be H-1B workers: he is a graduate of a top Indian business school who works for the Indian arm of a large U.S. consulting firm. He has lived and worked in the city for more than three years, but his apartment looks as if he just moved in: There’s little furniture, and the living room is a jumble of moving boxes. Each year since he arrived, he has gone into the H-1B lottery. Each year he has missed out.
This year, the man, who asked to speak anonymously to avoid angering his company, is trying again. “I didn’t buy even the sofa in this flat,” he said. “I just came with a suitcase.”
He quotes statistics to explain his bad luck. His first application went out in 2013, the year the number of applications started spiraling out of control. The year before, he says, everyone sponsored by his firm received an H-1B. “In 2013, there was 82 percent conversion,” he said. “Last year, it was 24 to 30 percent.” Of 65 new business school graduates to be hired by his company, he is the only one still in India.
Why is he so determined to get to the U.S.? “You learn much more when you’re directly interacting with your client,” he said. “If you don’t get to do that, in the long run you will lose out to your peers, who will be much more informed. They will understand the U.S. market much better compared to me, who’s sitting offshore and learning through reports or emails.”
Going abroad also means more money: Salaries with U.S. companies are at least three to four times what can be earned in India. The man has an education loan he is still paying off. “All my friends who went to the U.S. paid it off in the first year,” he says.
It will be at least another month before he learns whether his application made it through the lottery this year. Though he still hopes he’ll get one, so much has changed since he first tried that he feels distanced from it, he said.
“I don’t think much of the visa these days,” he said. “I was very, very hopeful the first time, and very, very disappointed the second time. Since then, I have gotten married. My life has changed. Now I think differently.”
His wife wants him to go to the Balaji temple to pray for help. “But I won’t,” he says. “Suppose this time I get the visa? Then you will unnecessarily attribute it to God. If I get it, the credit should be all mine.”
Fear of missing out
Mohan, the young engineer who is awaiting his H-1B assignment, is thrilled about finally seeing the American tourist sites he has seen in movies. He and his wife want to visit the Hollywood sign and Disneyland, a destination on almost every guest worker’s must-see list.
“I also want to see that – what is that thing where everyone dresses up and goes out? Oh yes, Halloween. I want to see Halloween,” he said.
Bharath Kumar, a programmer from Hyderabad, also recently received his H-1B visa, after almost a year of waiting. He and his wife are ardent believers in the power of God, he said, and have made their pilgrimage to the temple.
Now, he said, he can finally compete with all the vacation photos friends who have made it to the U.S. already have posted online. “Why can’t I have that life?” he said, expressing the anxiety common among millennials known as FOMO – fear of missing out.
“From childhood I have seen people go overseas. It is what I have thought about for a long time,” he said, sitting in a small apartment in Hyderabad full of rented furniture and a small shrine in a corner. “It is like you haven’t done much if you haven’t been there.”