How the American dream is souring for many Indian IT workers
Rejection rates for H-1B visa applicants are soaring and wait period for Green Cards are touching historic levels.
However, with visa extensions, his years in the US mounted, and he started dreaming of permanent residency and a life in sunny Florida. This June, however, he received some crushing news — a combination of his employer’s declining fortunes and worsening business and immigration climate meant that the Green Card, which had seemed within reach, was never going to be his. In early September, Sharma is set to unhappily head back to India and an uncertain future.
Indian employees like Sharma, who covet a job in the US (the largest contributor of business to India’s $170 billion tech outsourcing industry), are despairing that what used to be their golden ticket to a life in the US is turning to dust.
For thousands of Indians, who earn permanent residency after clocking up the years using the H-1B work visa programme, this situation has been in the making for a while. For the past couple of years, a bearish outlook by the Donald Trump administration in the US has resulted in mounting visa rejections.
Global tech companies such as Amazon and Microsoft as well as Indian code factories such as TCS and Infosys have all faced the heat from this changed stance.
According to US Citizenship and Immigration Services data, the H-1B rejection rates for Indian outsourcers has gone up from around 4-5% two years ago to around 40-50% today. In the background, immigration officials are getting more stringent with checks or RFE (request for evidence). According to estimates from USCIS, the RFEs for H-1B visas from Indian applicants went up from an average of 5% in 2016 to 50% in 2018.
The mounting work visa rejections have meant that apart from the business difficulties they are causing the companies and their clients, the cultural cache of a job with an Indian tech outsourcer, which came with a reasonable chance of a stint in the US and possibly an eventual Green Card, is now diminishing. It is one thing to take a job in Bellandur in Bengaluru with the possibility you could end up in Boston, and quite another if that is not a possibility.
Like Sharma, Praveen Kumar and his wife Neha (names changed), living in another city in Florida, are also on the brink of abandoning their own American dream, 14 years after Kumar first landed there. In this time, he has risen up the ranks in his job with a large electrical utility and become a member of the energy committee with the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).
This means he has been in meetings in Washington DC and schmoozed with senators discussing the future of energy and engineering in the US, even as his own fate hangs by a thread. “We have gotten to enjoy the quality of life and the American way,” Kumar admits. “But with this immigration flux, it is hard to not get stressed out about what tomorrow holds.”
Six years after they got into the queue for a Green Card, the couple may have to walk away from it all, settling instead for more stability for immigrants in neighbouring Canada or the familiar comforts of life back in India.
As the H-1B visa pile-up has lengthened, it could be a decade or more before things change for them, he adds. “Along with work stress, this additional burden is not something we signed up for when we chose to relocate.”
“The changes made to H-1 norms for computer programmers, the uncertainty with visa extensions despite prior approvals, the ‘Buy America Hire America’ initiatives have all had a negative impact on the number of H-1B petitions being approved and the number of visas being approved,” says Poorvi Chothani, managing partner of Lawquest International, a law firm headquartered in Florida and focused on immigration law. “The number of visa denials for B-1 visas is at the highest I have ever seen and the number of H-1B visas being delayed by hundreds of days and/or denied is also at its peak.”
Across the United States, from Florida to San Francisco, Seattle and Texas, Indian immigrants are hunkering down and planning their next steps. The challenge is unwinding their American lives (houses, cars, children and their education) and figuring out what to do next.
For people with children, for example, the challenge is magnified, because they need to figure out schooling and the necessary adjustment of moving back, besides starting afresh, often after a decade or more outside India. “The area I grew up in (Malleswaram—a conservative, quiet neighbourhood in Bengaluru), is unrecognisable from the time I grew up there,” says Kumar, the engineer in Florida. “After a decade-and-a-half in the States, it is a shock to go back home.”
Other recent returnees say that they have yet to adjust to life “back in India,” struggling with new levels of noise, pollution and chaos, after living in American suburbia. “The complex is great, but the roads outside are not,” says Ganesh L, who has returned to India’s IT capital and consults remotely from his home-office in a gated community in Whitefield, a tech hub in Bengaluru’s eastern periphery.
“The immigration climate has worsened,” says Peter Bendor-Samuel, CEO of Everest Group, a leading outsourcing advisory. “The current administration has not only restricted the number of H-1Bs, (but) also dramatically increased scrutiny of the applications process.”
This has resulted in soaring denial rates, heartburn for applicants and upset strategies for a sector that requires a regular funnel of engineers to be shipped to the US to help with coding and often project implementation duties.
“This has made the process far less reliable and difficult to manage,” he adds. In the first few days of April each year, USCIS allows applications for H-1B visas, typically permitting some 85,000 applications annually.
Due to the massive number of applications, this quota is booked out in days. While there is no lack of applicants, what has worsened this year has been prolonged waits, skyrocketing demand for additional information and the consequent delay in the entire process. Now, the USCIS may lengthen the process further — it wants to have a round of pre-registration of applicants for this category of visas — adding another layer of uncertainty to an already nerve-wracking process.
Chothani, the immigration lawyer, says all these moves are causing lengthy delays for applicants and their families. She points out that a couple of years ago, most H-1B applications were approved with the initial documentation, but now as many as 60% of them receive an RFE. While the option of hastened processing called Premium Processing is often used by companies (with a statement update in around a fortnight), the usual route can now stretch to eight months.
Indian IT executives and lobbies such as Nasscom maintain that a narrowing and denial of H-1B visas may hit uncomfortably close to home for the US. The issue of these visas is much higher to American companies such as Amazon and Google than to Indian outsourcers, they point out. A crippling shortage of science and engineering talent in the country means Indian workers are pivotal to these companies’ continued growth.
Delays in granting and renewing visas and graduating to a Green Card or citizenship are keeping technology immigrants on a knife-edge, suspended between chasing the dream and giving up on meeting friends and family back home. “We missed out on a lot (of ) occasions—my dad’s 85th birthday, my nephew’s birth (he is now five) and we haven’t even met him,” says Amrita Kumari (name changed), who has lived in the US for around a decade with her husband, who has an H-1B visa. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it to my niece’s wedding this December...Not being able to be there in person at the time of need is the hardest.”
The couple is, however, optimistic they will get their delayed Green Card towards the end of 2019 or early in 2020.
Another couple in Texas expect the worst. “We are ready to leave at a moment’s notice,” say Raj Singh and Sunita (names changed), a thirty-something couple, who have lived in the same city for nearly a decade. So, they sold their cars and in late August sold their house, and are in the process of figuring out what to do with their investments. “Immigration (department) has never been so hostile.”
Among the Indian community in tech worker-heavy cities such as Austin, conversations are increasingly dominated by stories of those who lost their visas, the tales of the undecided applications and the ones who chucked it all up and returned home. “We have never felt so much tension during something as routine as our Sunday temple visits,” Singh says.
Meanwhile, a looming legislative measure in the US can make the future of H-1B hopefuls more uncertain. In August, the Office of Management and Budget (a part of the US President’s office) reviewed a proposed regulation from the Department of Homeland Security that would mandate that employers pre-register for the H-1B visa category without paying the fees for the employees they intend to sponsor. Then, there will be a lottery and only the shortlisted employees can start the actual application for H-1B.
The US administration hopes this lottery system will streamline the system rather than bog it down in another layer of paperwork and bureaucracy. The IT industry is divided on this proposed measure, with Indian companies contending that they will be discriminated against, since this system could be opaque. Immigration experts worry that the timing could be a concern, with companies expected to start planning their 2020 H-1B plans by September this year.
Thus, as US President Donald Trump ratchets up his protectionist agenda, thousands of tech workers continue to wonder what the future holds. ....