Wanted: more huddled masses

CAREERS + ED Tech companies lobby for more immigrant work visas, bypassing US residents and creating a labor force bound by golden handcuffs

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Manish Champsee is now a US citizen, but was a technology worker in the US on an H-1B visa from Canada. Will the limits on H-1B visa holders soon change?
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

joe@sfbg.com

Schools of suit-clad professionals stream up city sidewalks in San Francisco's Financial District during the typical morning migration to the office. Near the intersection of Sutter and Montgomery streets, one line of immigrant workers stands still as they wait to submit paperwork in hopes of permanently joining the commuting throngs.

Cox & Kings Global Services, where documents of the Bay Area's new wave of workers are processed and filed, has a queue stretching down the block to a nearby coffee shop most mornings. Workers from India go here to submit their visas, and their numbers have exploded lately.

As the greater Bay Area's technology sector has boomed, so has its Indian population. This influx is linked to tech's practice of employing foreign-born workers, mostly from India and China, using H-1B work visas that are usually valid for six years with the possibility of extensions and eventually citizenship.

"You're seeing this across the US as tech aggressively pursues immigrants to work here," Todd Schulte, executive director of FWD.us, told the Bay Guardian. "You even see this in the Bay Area."

FWD.us advocates for immigration reform on behalf of the tech industry to make it easier for employers to bring foreign workers into the US. It was created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as his first foray into political lobbying. The move has led skeptics to ask an age-old question with a new spin: Are low-cost foreign workers depressing American workers' wages? Are they occupying jobs an American labor force could have instead?

Although immigration reform is high on the list of priorities for tech companies, they're spearheading ways to widen the temporary worker visa program without addressing the complicated issues raised by importing more tech-trained workers from lower-wage countries.

A foreign worker in the tech industry certainly does not suffer the same instability as a low-wage immigrant employee who lacks higher education and technical training. But studies show that the pathway to citizenship created by the specialized H-1B workers' visa program isn't guaranteed, presenting challenges for all involved.

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H-1B visas are technically known as "nonimmigrant visas," indicating the workers aren't expected to remain here permanently. So while American citizens are made to compete for jobs with those foreign workers who usually earn less, nonimmigrant workers encounter high barriers to obtaining the security of citizenship.

For now, the tech companies gaining low-cost workers seem to be the main beneficiaries of this skewed system.

 

GOLDEN HANDCUFFS

First came the boom. Tech jobs were less than 1 percent of San Francisco private sector employment in 1990, but now make up nearly 8 percent of the city's private sector jobs, according to research by urban development nonprofit SPUR. The tech boom coincided with a population boom of Indian and Chinese workers, temporary visa holders who may or may not seek permanent US citizenship.

San Francisco saw more than 8,000 nonimmigrant visa applications in the 2012-13 filing year, according to MyVisaJobs.com, which assembles reports on nonimmigrant visas. Employers in the Bay Area as a whole, including San Francisco and Silicon Valley, filed over 29,000 applications for H-1B visa holders. The majority of those workers are from India, and to a lesser extent, China, according to data from the US Department of Consular Affairs.

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