U.S. Slowdown Leaves Immigrant Workers in Lurch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials expect to report soon that the number of foreign high-tech employees permitted to work in this country has continued to rise during the economic slowdown.

But that doesn't mean the program that allows foreign nationals to work in the U.S. for three to six years in high-demand, highly skilled jobs hasn't been affected. Layoffs and shrinking job prospects have some H-1B visa workers coming to grips with their pursuit of a better life in America. Now, they say, it seems like it may have been the biggest mistake of their lives.

"I wish I hadn't come," said Anthony James, a Brisbane, Australia, native and H-1B worker who was laid off from his job with Oracle in late March. "The company's stock plummeted. My project was canceled. If I was in Australia, I could take any job to make ends meet. Here, I'm not allowed to do that. We're in limbo land."

An estimated 500,000 foreigners are in the U.S. on temporary H-1B visas under the 50-year-old program designed to fill employer needs unmet by U.S. residents for professionals and specialists with a bachelor's or higher degree, including architects, engineers, accountants, doctors, college professors and even fashion models.

Students Put Off Studies for Options

Nearly 54% are involved in computer-related fields, according to a recent federal study. Their median income is about $50,000, and half are expected to earn between $40,000 and $60,000.

There is no official gauge of the effect the economic slowdown is having on these highly skilled and motivated workers. But informal indicators--such as the frequently full voice mailbox of Roland Villalobos--paint a gloomy picture.

"I get calls from panicky students saying, 'What do I do now? I've been laid off,' " said Villalobos, who directs Stanford University's Bechtel International Center and works with many foreign students who become H-1B visa holders.

"I've gotten enough phone calls [that it has gotten] to the point where we've done a handout on the center's Web site to answer questions," he said. "Even the brightest are not immune."

During what Villalobos called the "H-1B e-rush" period, he said, "I had students who were not completing their [doctorates] because companies would blatantly recruit them. [The recruiters] said, 'We'll train you. Your PhD doesn't matter.' I had students who said, 'I need the work permit now, or I will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars of stock options.' That sense of urgency is gone now."

Revised Law Doesn't Help Those Laid Off

Elahe Najfabadi, a partner with the Los Angeles-based law offices of Carl Shusterman, agreed. The firm works with mid-size information technology companies and hospitals in H-1B job placements.

"People are selling their cars, advertising for roommates," Najfabadi said. "A friend of mine in Los Altos is selling his home. He lost his job and hasn't received another offer."

A law signed by then-President Clinton in October made changes in the program that were designed to ease potential hardships and avert abuse against visa holders. It allows a displaced H-1B holder to begin another job as soon as the new employer files an H-1B petition, instead of waiting for INS approval as they were required in the past.

Employers must pay full benefits to H-1B workers. They must be added to the payroll within 30 days of arriving in the country. Unless laid off, workers must be paid. "Benching"--withholding pay when work is not available--is prohibited.

There was nothing in the new law to help people like James, who are laid off. James and his wife sold their home in Brisbane and moved to Silicon Valley 11 months ago. Even a proposed INS grace period of 60 days to allow a laid-off H-1B worker to find a new job is something of a farce in this economy, James said.

"It's hard enough for an American with contacts in his own country to find a new job in just 60 days," James said. "It's not a happy time. If we do go home, we're not coming back."

Ramchanbra Sadananda, 48, is in a different bind, but he is equally embittered about the H-1B program. He accepted a job more than five years ago as a materials engineer for a pipeline manufacturing company near Houston. The transition has been difficult for the Indian family, but they saw the H-1B program as a door to a permanent life here.

Sadananda has had his three-year H-1B visa renewed once and has only 11 months left before it lapses, without the possibility of a second extension. But he fears his time will run out before he is able to obtain a green card and permanent status.

"It was a wrong move that I made to come here," Sadananda said. "My wife is not allowed to work here, and she is rotting at home. I had to pay more for my son to go to college here because he was ineligible for financial aid. I pay into Social Security here, and I pay income taxes. I've tried to do everything the right way."

Sadananda, a native of India, is a materials engineer who works with large-diameter pipe for oil and gas transport. His skills are much in demand. He has worked on projects in Oman, Dubai, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. But now, after more than five years of pursuing permanent residency, Sadananda expects he will be forced to accept a job offer in the Middle East.

"No other country can match" the U.S., he said. "It is truly a land of opportunity, but at this stage, we might as well just pack up and go."

Umair Masood, 42, brought his wife and four children from Pakistan in 1999 to sign on as an H-1B worker for a small information technology consulting business in New Jersey. One day, Masood said, he told his employer he believed he was underpaid. H-1B rules designed to prevent companies from using the program to undercut qualified U.S. workers require employers to pay visa holders prevailing wages.

Masood said he was fired shortly after he brought it up.

"I said I have four children," he said. "Please revise your decision. You cannot do this. He said he could not revise his decision."

Fighting Employers a Battle of Money, Pride

Masood said he spent most of his savings on lawyers, who have been unable to help him. He said he has struggled in vain to find another job. Masood, which is his middle name, asked that his last name be withheld out of fear that job prospects might be dashed if employers were aware he challenged his last employer.

Now, Masood said, he is caught in a quandary that wounds his pride.

"I would become a driver, a grocery store worker," he said. "But I cannot, and what message would that send to my children? Their father has had so much schooling, and yet he has a job like that. They will ask why they are being told that they must study and stay in school."

Masood said he also is concerned that his children, who have learned to speak English and Spanish, would have difficulty adjusting if they have to return to his native Pakistan.

"I'm disconnected," he said. "I'm not linked with anyone [in Pakistan]. I can adjust, but it will not be good for them."

Murali Krishna Devarakonda, 34, an independent software engineer, is one of the lucky ones. He has applied for a green card, which allowed him to stay in the country beyond his six-year H-1B visa limit, which began in 1994.

As a member of the New Jersey-based Immigrants Support Network, Devarakonda said he is working to help 25 H-1B workers who have come forward to expose employers who they say have violated laws governing the program, including one man who hasn't been paid for months.

"The INS takes too long to process green cards. If that wasn't the case, there wouldn't be any problems," Devarakonda said.

The image of H-1B workers as highly educated and well-paid engenders little sympathy for their hardships, particularly among critics who see the program as a sham that excludes American workers from high-tech jobs.

But there are H-1B workers like Dipen Joshi, who was placed in a job by an H-1B recruitment agency. That agency, Compubahn, required Joshi to sign a contract obliging him to remain with them for 18 months or pay a penalty. When Joshi found an employer willing to sponsor him and hire him full time, Compubahn handed Joshi a bill for $77,000.

When Joshi didn't pay, Compubahn sued him, alleging breach of contract. Represented by Bay Area attorney Michael Papuc, Joshi won the case in May and was freed from the fines. Since then, Papuc has received about 500 telephone calls from H-1B workers who are anxious to be free of similar contracts. But Papuc said he is unlikely to make a crusade out of such cases.

"They are costly and time-consuming and ultimately very risky," said Papuc, adding that he spent about 900 hours on the case. "Getting any money out of this depends on having a judge who'll grant you attorney's fees. The bottom line is, there are too many ways to not get paid."

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