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February 29, 2000, Tuesday


Workers Are Trapped In Limbo By I.N.S.

By SARA ROBINSON (NYT) 984 words
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb. 27 -- Like thousands of other professionals, Nick Saw came to this country to apply his skills in the booming high-technology industry, working under a temporary visa. And like many temporary workers, Mr. Saw wants to stay.

But the prospect of establishing a lasting foothold in the United States makes him, in some ways, a captive to his employer, which sponsored his visa application. If he tries to switch companies, or is laid off, he has to start the immigration process all over. Even the company he works for, Hewlett-Packard, cannot promote him if it will change his basic job description.

And the period of limbo for such workers can be long. Mr. Saw, a 30-year-old British citizen, applied for a green card, which gives permanent residency status, when he arrived two years ago; he will probably have to wait several more years.

He plans to stay with his job for now, he says, but he is frustrated about having so little control over his future. ''I'd sooner leave the country than put my life on hold all over again,'' he said.

Legions of foreign professionals at high-tech companies across the country are in the same position. Over the last decade, tens of thousands have been admitted to the United States each year on temporary work visas to address what the technology industry says is a severe shortage of skilled workers.

Now the industry is pushing to expand the largest such visa program, known as H-1B, which allows workers to stay in the United States for six years. Under legislation introduced this month in the Senate, the annual allotment of the six-year visas -- which had already grown to 115,000 in 1998 from 65,000 in 1990 -- would be temporarily increased to 195,000. Those with advanced degrees from American universities will be exempt from the limitations.

But even as the gates have been opened wider, the road to permanent immigrant status has become more difficult. Over the last two years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has become increasingly unable to cope with its growing workload, and the wait for a green card has stretched to several years.

Since 1990, the law has allotted 140,000 green cards each year to applicants sponsored by employers, but that limit has never been reached. Last year, only 62,000 cards were issued despite a backlog of hundreds of thousands of applications. Ron Gotcher, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, said he advised clients applying for green cards to be prepared to wait at least five years.

For workers from India and China, the problem is particularly acute. Although more than half the H-1B visas go to citizens of India or China, the law specifies that only 7 percent of employment-based green cards can go to applicants from any one country. So applicants from India and China often wait several years for an open slot before they can even apply. If their visas expire, the workers must leave the country for at least a year before they can restart the application process.

Some of the workers compare themselves to indentured servants.

''The information technology revolution is occurring on the backs of these workers,'' said Pradeep Chaphalkar, a green-card holder from India who is a spokesman for the Immigrants Support Network, an organization of workers seeking permanent residency.

When the visa program was introduced in 1990, the stated goal was to bring in workers temporarily to fill jobs for which there were no American workers. But the technology boom in the 1990's created an unceasing demand for skilled workers.

Now the ''temporary'' designation is largely ignored by employers, who recruit workers with the promise of aid in immigration, and employees, who see work visas as a route to permanent residency.

But a green-card application must specify a job and employer, and those cannot be changed. And in a market in which job hopping is the norm, being tied to one employer can be a hardship.

''For years I am supposed to be doing exactly the same thing for exactly the same company, and that is so unlikely in this area,'' said Nenad Nedeljkovic, a Serb working in Silicon Valley. ''I get a couple of calls every week from recruiters, and every time I tell them that I have to wait.''

From the foreign workers to their employers to organized labor, all seem to acknowledge that the system is flawed, but agendas for reforming it diverge widely.

The Senate legislation, endorsed by the American Electronics Association, enjoys strong bipartisan support. In addition to increasing the number of H-1B visas through 2002, it would liberalize the per-country limits on green cards.

Senator Spencer Abraham, the Michigan Republican who heads the the Senate immigration subcommittee and is a sponsor of the bill, said the immigration service had been ''very unresponsive'' to the problem.

Large high-technology companies say the foreign labor pool is essential. Mary Dee Beall, government affairs manager at Hewlett-Packard, says that if companies cannot hire the workers they need by bringing some in from overseas, they will shift jobs abroad.

Unions, however, are concerned that the system is susceptible to employer fraud and abuse. The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has called for training American workers and enforcing labor laws in lieu of bringing in more workers from abroad.

Assertions that companies exploit the system to pay foreigners less are hard to document. But some workers say they are paid far less than the average for people with their education, skills and experience.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company