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The Other Side of H1-B Visa Debate: Indian Techies are the Primary Targets of Anti-immigration Lobbyists

The Other Side of H1-B Visa Debate: Indian Techies are the Primary Targets of Anti-immigration Lobbyists

  • Groups opposing Indian H1-B visas and green card country caps argue that tech companies are interested in cheap indentured labor, keeping them as long as they can. “For years, American IT workers have been pushed to the side, being run over by the Indian workers,” they claim.

On Sept. 19, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough announced that “Democrats can’t use their $3.5 trillion package bolstering social and climate programs to give millions of immigrants a chance to become citizens.” The Democrats’ budget reconciliation package had proposed relief to the 1.2 million individuals stuck in the employment-based green card backlog to strengthen the United States economy. MacDonough’s decision is a disheartening setback for President Biden, congressional Democrats, and their allies in their earnest effort on thousands of immigrants, mainly Indian H1-B visa holders, to gain permanent residence, and in the process, citizenship.

Some anti-H1 B visa lobbyists, however, are hailing it as a “huge victory for American workers,” according to a tweet from U.S. Tech Workers, which focuses on restricting immigration to protect the interest of American citizens. 

We talked with three activists who oppose H1-B visas — Steve Pushor, an Information Technology Jobs Advocate and founder of Save American Information Technology Jobs (SAITJ); Kevin Lynn, one of the founders of U.S. Tech Workers, and Roger Ross their policy advisor — to understand their point of view.

Based on the interviews, we summarize the rationale behind their opposition, and the activities they are engaged in to prevent H1-B visa holders from gaining permanent status in the U.S. 

The Background

The H-1B, a temporary work-related visa program, established under the Immigration Act of 1990, was initially intended to bring foreign nationals with highly specialized and uncommon skills to perform specific work for a temporary duration in the U.S. If they wish to permanently settle in the country, they are required to obtain an employment-based immigrant visa (or green card).

Since 1990, the U.S. Congress has set the annual limit on employment-based immigrants at 140,000 (and 65,000 for H-1B temporary visas). As of March 2020, the backlog for the EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3-the employment-based first, second, and third preferences for permanent residence, was915,497, with more than half Indian nationals, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

In 1999, Congress passed American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act (AC21) to expand ways for U.S. employers to recruit and sponsor foreign professionals for H- 1B visas and green cards. In May 2015, President Obama introduced the H-4EAD, which allowed H-4 visa holders, dependents of the H1-B visa, to work. To qualify, the H1-B worker would need to have lived for six years in the country, specifically during the first stage of the green card application.

Keeping in view the massive backlog of green cards, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants bill (HR1044) was introduced in Congress which would eliminate the per-country cap of 7 percent and clear the backlog of skilled foreign workers waiting for green cards. This act was passed in the House in July 2019 but was never taken up in the Senate.

Following that, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants bill (S.386 ) was sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in 2019, to eliminate the per-country limit for employment-based immigrants. This bill faced a roadblock in the Senate and did not become a law in the last 116th Congress, which ended on Jan. 2. 

The Rationale for Opposition

Pushor and Lynn have vehemently opposed the S386 bill and have lobbied on Capitol Hill to defeat it in the Senate. Their primary focus has been to fight against 70 percent of the green cards given to Indian H1-B workers.

In 2019, Pushor and several Information Technology workers went to Capitol Hill to lobby against the S386 bill and support tech workers. 

Pushor recalls the congressional aides asking them where they’d been for so long. “They said that they thought that the Indians are the only ones lobbying,” he said. They set up brochures, wrote letters to media houses, fundraised, and engaged in “old-fashioned lobbying” by visiting the representatives on Capitol Hill. They went to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and mobilized the senators to listen to them. 

“Now United States tech workers have a strong presence in Capitol Hill,” Pushor says, adding that the failure of HR1044 and S386 to pass this year is an “outstanding achievement” of SAITJ. 

Calling the removal of 7 percent country cap quotas on employment-based green cards, “terrible legislation,” Lynn says he “was worried that it would benefit predominantly 700,000 Indian nationals in the backlog who would monopolize all employment-based green cards for the next several decades.”

Furthermore, both Pusher and Lynn question the merit of Indian H1-B visa holders who they think are contributing to cheap labor at the cost of the American tech workers. The whole H1-B is based on the lottery regardless of qualification, resulting in “many people coming from India who may not be qualified to do the job,” they say. 

Lynn blames the Immigration Act of 1990 and subsequent laws (AC21, H4-EAD, etc.) that allowed Indians “to essentially hijack the IT job recruiting program, turning them into a pipeline of cheap labor to eager corporations looking to maximize profits in the short run.” With an increase of a total of 700,000 immigrants for the fiscal years 1992–94, and 675,000 per year after that, educated professionals from India, even without proper qualification, have been sponsored by Indian IT Consulting firms. They took advantage of the need for technological skills in the United States and outnumbered immigrants from any other country.

The Role of Big Businesses

Lynn, Pushor, and Ross argue that Silicon Valley firms like Google, Microsoft, Apple, among others, use the outsourcing model by discriminating against American workers. 

In a New York Times article, “Google’s Shadow Workforce: Temps Who Outnumber Full-Time Employees,” journalist Daisuke Wakabayashi says temp workers, known as Google’s shadow workforce, now outnumber the company’s full-time employees. As of March 2019, Google worked with roughly 121,000 temps and contractors worldwide, compared with 102,000 full-time employees, the article points outs. Though they often work side by side with full-timers, Google temps are employed by outside agencies. “They make less money, have different benefits plans, and have no paid vacation time in the United States,” she writes.

Several companies, not limited to technology, have hired Indian skilled workers to gain cheap labor for technology-related work in the last decade. An Indian American doctor at the Kaiser Healthcare company in Pasadena, California, told the authors that since 2008, the company has been routinely employing Indian contract workers to digitize all the medical records and take care of their IT jobs. Kaiser has a policy not to sponsor the contract workers for green cards. 

Pushor cites the story of an Indian H1-B worker from New Jersey, who was mistreated, not paid, lost his job, filed a lawsuit against his company, lost it, and was kicked out of the country.

Many who’ve gone back to India have reached out to Pushor and Lynn to tell their stories of H1-B exploitation and bad faith in the hands of technology companies and corporations in the United States. 

How Money Talks

Tech workers and the Progressive Immigration Reform group argue that the temporary work visa destroys the tech workers’ salary, making them lose their jobs and ruin their lives. The immigrants are coming from other countries, and they would do the work for less money. 

Ross cites a famous case: “In 2015, Disney replaced its well-qualified and successful American workers working in the IT department with the H1-B workers from India.” It was most humiliating for the American workers to train their foreign replacements predominantly from India. Another well-known case was the AIG Insurance Company, where the workers were obliged to train their foreign stand-ins to qualify for their severance package.

These lobbyists argue that these tech companies are interested in cheap indentured labor, keeping them as long as they can. “For years, American IT workers have been pushed to the side, being run over by the Indian workers,” says Pushor. The former did not have any lobbying, lacking any representation in Congress. Pushor, who established a lobbyist group in D.C., says he “started it small.”

On Aug. 3, 2020, Lynn met President Trump with 12 Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) workers at the White House. Their jobs were going to be outsourced to three H1-B visa-dependent companies. TVA is a federally-owned electric utility corporation, where nearly 200 American workers were about to lose their jobs. They were going to train their replacements before getting fired.

Lynn and Ross had gone down to a rally in Alabama and spoke to several workers losing their jobs. They made a commercial in support of the American Tech workers, which Trump saw. “After it aired, the president fired the chairman and one of the directors of the TVA,” they said. “The CEO changed his mind, and the American workers could save their jobs.” Furthermore, Trump signed an executive order emphasizing American-focused purchasing and hiring.

The tech workers take pride in citing the victory of Robert Heath, an American worker against Ameritech Global Inc, an Information Technology staffing and recruiting company. Heath filed a discrimination complaint with the Civil Rights Division that between Aug. 1, 2019, to June 17, 2021, Ameritech posted at least three job advertisements announcing its preference to fill positions with non-U.S. citizens. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), employers are not generally allowed to discriminate in recruitment or hiring based on citizenship status. On Aug. 17, Heath won the anti-discrimination against Ameritch Global.

Lynn notes that “no one is discussing how certain aspects of our legal immigration system are undermining American workers’ opportunities as well as exploiting foreign workers.” Many Indians on student visas “overstay their visas and get hired through Optional Practical Training Program (OPT),” adds Pushor. The OPT was created by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). International students enter the US on an F-1 student visa and, upon graduating from a US institution, are automatically awarded work permits that allow them to enter the U.S. workforce with ease. 

See Also

According to Lynn, “employers exploit the desperation of these OPT workers and choose to pay them absolutely nothing. The number of STEM OPT permits issued far exceeds the H-1B visa issuance numbers in a given year,” he says, adding: “OPT has become a new threat to American workers – specifically to new American graduates.” 

He narrates an incident about a group of college graduates who recently protested in front of California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren’s office in San Jose. They were frustrated that they couldn’t find a job. A majority of them were naturalized U.S. citizens. Not only are U.S. citizens struggling to find a job after graduating, but the fight continues because of these laws. Lynn says, “the legislation has created a monopoly of the H1-B workers in the IT labor market without any barriers to Indian IT workers’ ambitions to immigrate to the U.S.” 

Several third-party firms have emerged who are leasing these H1-B workers off to the fortune 500 companies in the United States. “A black market of immigration is now sold as auto insurance.” They also accuse big high-tech firms like Microsoft and Intel of exploiting the H1- B visa holders.

American Workers Affected

Pushor gives the example of an east coast professional with an incredible resume who lost his job to an H1-B worker and went into medical depression. He says these computer programmers spend their whole life working in information technology, honing the skill in an ever-changing programming field, just so they can lose their jobs to foreigners. “No other country does this to its people by bringing in foreigners. One does not take foreigners to replace themselves.” 

Lynn and Ross say that many of the activists among the tech workers are Indian American citizens. They are also losing ground to the H1-B workers and are exploited because of the cheap labor. “With more Indians taking over the IT sector in the large companies, it’s getting very tribal. The Indians are hiring other Indians. This current immigration system is not working for the American citizen.”

The tech workers group is upset that 75 percent of H1-B visas go to Indian nationals. Remittances have become a $78 billion-a-year industry promoting the outsourcing industry in India, and a large percentage of India’s GDP is dependent on the IT outsourcing business model. The lobbyists fear that it is ruining the American economy in the process. 

Indian workers on H1-B visas deny that they are cheap labor. With a six-figure salary, they are contributing taxes to the U.S. economy. They are not illegal aliens and are targeted by tech workers.

However, Lynn argues that paying taxes is not a condition for seeking immigration status. “I don’t care how much taxes you pay. That is up to the U.S. government to determine whether you belong in this country or not.” 

The Tech Workers Association ties cheap labor with indentured labor. For example, a manager at Cisco hires H1-B at a fair market wage. “For Cisco, it’s not about cheap labor but indentured labor,” the group says. “These people cannot run away to other companies. And Silicon Valley likes H1-B because waiting for the green card, ties the worker to the company where they cannot run away.”

The tech workers do not support the green card legislation because it is not a one-time deal. Even when Indian H1-B workers get the green card, companies like Cisco find other eager H1-B workers to fill the spot, and the indentured labor continues. They put forward the bitter argument that the specialized occupation that the H1-B visa is based on simply is not followed. The jobs they are hired for may not be specialized. “Give us a true prevailing wage, give us a real good definition of a specialty occupation that is a specialty and not a lower functioning job or skill set,” Lynn says. Ross agrees, “Most of the H1-B visa programs are not bringing the best and brightest.”

The tech workers emphasize that the H1-B visa should be treated as a temporary visa. The dual intent — the opportunity to stay in this country and gain citizenship — is directly against the interest of the American citizens. “We also have to be cognizant that America is the nation that represents the interests of the Americans.” Pushor says, adding, “the Fortune 500 companies discriminate against Americans like crazy. The big tech lobby like Facebook, Google, and the rest of them who put out the big bucks are mighty on Capitol Hill, and they have a significant say on immigration.” According to him, “Indian American IT and American IT workers should form a union to fight against these companies.”

Lynn and Pusher emphasize that many naturalized citizens are losing their jobs to H1- B workers brought from India en masse who are displacing the American workers. Lynn insists that with the green card security, they are rewarded for bad behavior. “I do not have a responsibility to an Indian immigrant coming here and working for either an H1-B visa-dependent company or an Indian consulting firm. I do have a responsibility to American citizens who have been displaced and cannot get work.”

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

Alice Tao is currently a sophomore at The Harker School, San Jose. Her passions lie in the discussion of social issues. She loves talking with people and debating solutions and speculations on problems that impact lives. She also enjoys sewing, volleyball, and performing.

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