Category Archives: immigration

5 Months in New York City: The People

I spent close to 5 months in New York City this year for my work. This post is part of a series of posts about my stay there, what I saw and what I observed. More to come.

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Growing up in India, the term ‘big city’ largely implied the size of a city in terms of its geographic scale. And the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ meant that there were people from all over the country who called the said city their home. But here in America, the term ‘big city’ implies the size of the city in terms of its population, and the term ‘cosmopolitan city’ means that one can find people from all over the world who call the city their home. There was always going to be a culture shock going from a small city like Des Moines in the Midwest to living in New York City. I was largely prepared for it and definitely looking forward to embrace it for the duration of my stay.

To the people who live there and for those who have never spent significant time there, it is perhaps nothing more than an axiom – that was acknowledged a long time ago and something that holds no significance now – that New York City is the biggest city in America and the most cosmopolitan city in the world. But for those who have never spent any significant time in a city that size and that diverse and who go to live there for the first time, it is no longer just an axiom. No, for those who go to live there for the first time, the size of the city and the diversity of the population is easily the most glaring feature the city has to offer. It is the first thing that will strike you and it will continue to be a constant reminder of what the city is and what it stands for.

diversity

So yes, that was the first thing I noticed myself – the sheer number of people and the diversity of those people. (To be fair, I had been to NYC (and have spent many days in Chicago) previously for a few days as a tourist, but these kind of observations and realizations do not come when in the mindset of a tourist. You just have to live there for a while). People from all over the world – from places I knew well to places I didn’t even know existed. I met people who had lived in the city since a few weeks and I met people whose families had lived the city for several generations, and everything in between.

The term ‘melting pot of different cultures’ cannot and should not be used in an off-handed manner. But NYC clearly makes the case for being one. There are always going to be isolated pockets of people from different cultures who tend to spend time among themselves. But from what I saw, there was a lot of clear racial and cultural inter-mingling that has taken place over several generations and continues to this day. Interracial couples and mixed race folk tell only part of the story. The true inter-mingling happens in the transfer of ideas from people of one culture to another. And this is on full display in the city. It is largely on the subtle level, but if you are looking for it, you will definitely find it.

The diversity is so much on display there that (apart from the one exception of the concert crowd) there was never in a single situation where I found that white people were in the majority! In the subway, in Times Square, in Harlem, in lower Manhattan, in Queens or Brooklyn, in movie theaters, in restaurants and literally anywhere else, I always found that non-white people made up at least half the crowd. I made that observation and state it here as absolutely nothing more than a fact that reflects the true extent of diversity the city has to offer.

For all the talk about New Yorkers being rude and arrogant and living life in a hurry, I found that most of my encounters and observations pointed to the contrary. I spent a good amount of my time (at work) with strangers who had no reason to help me in any form. I am not talking about people in the office working in a cube. I am talking about blue collar workers of different age groups who were born and raised in the 5 boroughs. I spent a lot of time with them – weeks together on a daily basis – and got to know them rather well. Most of them tried to help me out on various tasks when they had absolutely no incentive to do so. And everybody were polite.

In fact, the more time I spent with them blue collar workers, the more I noticed a rather raw side to their general nature – an honesty and straightforwardness that I hadn’t found among anyone working in a cube. There was no beating around the bush, no needless diplomacy – just the honest and polite truth. My conversations and interactions with those blue collar workers – especially while hanging out at their office food truck  for breakfast or lunch – were definitely some of the memorable highlights from my NYC stay.

It was not just that those blue collar workers spoke a certain way. What also made a difference to me was that my own skin color did not seem to make any difference to anyone in NYC when they interacted with me. Here in the Midwest, I have typically found people being more guarded when talking to me as compared to other white people. Even though they mostly do it with the right intention, it still remains an undeniable fact and something that prevents me from developing new and deeper connections. But in NYC, the people I interacted with had no holding back. Sample this: Within two days of meeting and working with this one blue collar worker, we were already talking about what kind of college degree his daughter should pursue! Even strangers I met on the bus or the subway didn’t appear to incorporate my skin color or accent into how they interacted with me. And that was an extremely refreshing experience that I had sorely missed in Iowa.

The explanation for this is actually pretty obvious. The more that white folks get to see and interact with people from other countries/cultures/races, the more familiar they get with them, resulting in not putting up their guards when they meet someone not of their color/race/country in the future. This phenomenon is obviously not just restricted to white people. This very much applies to any dominant group of people interacting with people who have less representation in the same geographical area.

And so, with 5 months of NYC under my belt, I can see why immigrants like to flock to a city like NYC. The reasons and explanations may sound obvious and almost banal to those who already live there or in similar cities. But for someone like me living in a much smaller place where many times I am the only diversity around me, it was a massive paradigm shift in terms of the dynamics of social interaction and what assimilation means and stands for.

And it was only when I came back to Des Moines last week that I appreciated the contrast for what it truly was. America is called a ‘land of immigrants’ and that is true. But I realized that what that means in NYC is vastly different than what it means in a place like Des Moines. In New York City, that phrase stands for immigrants from all over the world whose families have lived in the city from several generations ago to those who probably just landed there that week. In a place like Des Moines, that phrase implies that several generations or centuries ago, a number of East European people came there as immigrants looking for a better life and have since lived there.

I will conclude by saying that one cannot and should not compare and contrast a city like Des Moines to a place like New York City. There is only one New York City but there are many places like Des Moines. But it is equally important to accept and acknowledge the vast difference in the number and diversity of people in those cities – and their far reaching impact on the society.

 

 

New H1B Bill: How the Indian Media Provided False Information

Note: This is the second post on this topic. In the first post, I explained what the current H1B law provides for and what exactly the bill proposes to change. Please read that to get a full understanding of the situation. 

The Protect and Grow American Jobs Act that was reintroduced last week by Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA) has received a large amount of attention from the Indian media due to its specific targeting of H1B visa changes. I have discussed in detail what the current law is and what the bill does previously. In this post, I will cover how the Indian media has incorrectly reported this bill.

To summarize the impacts of the bill, the following points should be sufficient:

  1. This bill applies only to H1B Dependent Employer (HDE) companies (those that have more than 15% of their workforce under H1B visas) and Willful Violator (WV) companies. It DOES NOT apply to ALL H1B visa seekers.
  2. The HDE and WV companies, unlike the rest of them, are required to recruit an American worker before applying a H1B visa for a foreign worker. They also cannot fire an American worker within 90 days before and 90 days after an H1B foreign worker is hired. They also cannot post the H1B worker at a different employer’s office. This is done to reduce visa abuse, to offer basic protection to American workers, and to ensure that only the best workers are hired under H1B.
  3. Under the current law, the additional requirements for HDE and WV companies, as shown in #2, can be easily bypassed in either of two ways. One is by hiring a foreign worker who has a Master’s degree in the area of the job. Second is by offering the foreign worker a minimum pay of $60,000 per annum. These two ‘exemptions’ allow the HDE and WV companies to bypass the additional requirements, thus making it very easy for them to abuse the visa system. (See the Disney H1B lawsuit for example).
  4. The new bill aims to change two things in the criteria that allows the HDE and WV companies to bypass the additional requirements (in #2). One, it aims to increase the minimum pay to $100,000 per annum. Second, it removes the Master’s degree exemption – meaning you cannot bypass the additional requirements just because the H1B worker the company plans to hire has a Master’s degree. This aims to close the loophole that allows visa abuses to take place.

So that was a summary of what is happening here. Now let us look at how the Indian media is reporting this news.

I will start with the most egregious falsification: The Hindu. The Hindu news article lists 6 separate items that it says the Bill aims to do. Only one of these is even partly correct. The rest are just outrageous falsifications. Let us look at them:

  • The Bill prohibits companies from hiring H1-B employees if they employ more than 50 people and more than 50 per cent of their employees are H1-B and L-1 visa holders. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. There is no such language in the bill at all. Even the HDE company definition is incorrect going by this rule.
  • The Bill encourages companies to recruit American workers. This provision would crack down on outsourcing companies that import large numbers of H-1B and L-1 workers for short training periods and then send these workers back to their home country to do the work of Americans, the Senators who introduced the Bill had said. This is a very generic statement offering no specific information on how the bill aims to do this. As a general intent of the bill, it is correct. But there is no language listing this explicitly. 
  • It explicitly prohibits replacement of American workers by H1-B or L-1 visa holders. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. The general intent to not replace American workers is indeed contained in the bill, as it is in the current law. But there is no ‘explicit’ language in the bill that talks about prohibiting replacement of American workers. 
  • The Bill seeks to give the Department of Labour enhanced authority to review, investigate and audit employer compliance as well as to penalise fraudulent or abusive conduct. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. Again, this is a very generic statement offering no information. More importantly, the bill text itself does not include any language in this regard. 
  • The Bill seeks to increase the minimum salary of H1-B visa holders to $1,00,000 per annum. INCORRECT AND MISLEADING. As discussed in the summary above, the minimum salary only applies to the H1B workers under the HDE companies seeking to bypass the additional requirements. This DOES NOT APPLY to all H1B visa holders, as this statement suggests.
  • Currently, firms need not go through extensive paperwork if the potential H1-B employee has an equivalent of a Master’s degree or higher and he or she is paid at least $60,000 annually. The Bill aims to do away with the Master’s degree exemption (as “they are easily obtained by foreign workers”). PARTLY CORRECT. This is the only bullet point that has even a shred of correct information in it. As seen from the summary, what The Hindu lists as ‘extensive paperwork’ are essentially additional requirements that (only) the HDE and WV companies have to adhere to in order to ensure there is no visa abuse. Additionally, this statement mentions the Master’s degree exemption, but does not state what the exemption is for!

There is absolutely no excuse or justification for publishing such large amounts of wrong information on a leading national daily website (and presumably their newspaper as well). I am currently preparing an email to the Editor of The Hindu pointing out this outrageous misinformation. I do not expect a response, however.

The next biggest blunder I saw was from Zee News. Their article listed 3 separate items as part of the bill and its impacts. Here they are:

  • To get H1B visa approved, you will have to fit in the salary bracket of $100,000 a year, up from $60,000 currently. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. This only applies for HDE companies looking to bypass additional requirements.
  • One will need to have a Master’s degree, as recognized by the US. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT!! Removing the Master’s degree exemption language is foolishly misinterpreted as a Master’s degree ‘requirement’! 
  • It is estimated that any change on visa law will largely impact companies who have more than 50 employees based in the US. INCORRECT. The HDE companies are those that have 15% or more of their workforce under H1B visas. Companies even under 50 employees have the HDE categorization. 

It should be noted that the Master’s degree ‘requirement’ mentioned above is actually being listed in many newspapers and websites. This is completely incorrect. There is no such requirement at all! Do not confuse the removal of the Master’s degree exemption to the ‘requirement’ of a Master’s degree!

\[UPDATE March 29th 2017]\

One of the journalistic sources that I have been personally reading for the past 3 years and would strongly recommend is The Caravan Magazine. Its writing primarily includes long form journalism and has generally provided very high quality articles – albeit with a left-leaning perspective. However, I was particularly disappointed with the way the magazine had covered this H1B bill’s developments in this February’s edition. This error becomes even more egregious considering the writer is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and is an author of multiple books. It is difficult to comprehend how something as simple as this escapes folks who are expected to be well informed.  Here is what it states and how it is incorrect:

  • ….the bill proposes to raise the minimum salary of H1-B professionals from $60k to $100k, making it costlier for employers to hire foreign workers. INCORRECT AND MISLEADING. As discussed in the summary above, the minimum salary only applies to the H1B workers under the HDE companies seeking to bypass the additional requirements. This DOES NOT APPLY to all H1B visa holders, as this statement suggests.
  • It also promises to end a provision that allows as many as 20,000 foreign nationals in excess of the annual H1-B quota to avail of the visa if they hold a Master’s degree. This is the part which particularly disappointed me. The Master’s degree exemption that is discussed in the bill is essentially the loophole through which HDE companies can bypass a lot of additional requirements. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with the existing quota of 20,000 H1B visas being issued to people with Master’s degrees from US Universities. These are two separate and independent things. Even just the most cursory reading of the bill will make it clear.

I have written to The Caravan requesting them to issue a retraction on their upcoming issue. (There was none issued in the March edition). I am hopeful that they will.

\[UPDATE March 29th 2017]\

\UPDATE May 30th 2017\

The Caravan responded to my email and have issued a correction in their online and print article to reflect the correct information.

\[UPDATE May 30th 2017]]

Let’s move on to other big publications. Websites of Times of India, The Indian Express, Live Mint, and Economic Times all include more or less the same statement regarding this bill:

The bill among other things increase the minimum salary of H-1B visa to $100,000 per annum and eliminate the Masters Degree exemption.

And as we have seen, this is only partly correct and also does not include any information on what the actual exemption is. Additionally, the Economic Times ran a slightly different spin on this statement. This is what it said:

The new bill would require workers on the H-1B visa pay a minimum of $100,000, up from $60,000 currently. The bill also removes the Master’s degree exemption to the cap on the number of visas available.

The second line is what is total garbage. There is no impact to the ‘cap on number of visas available’ as this report states. The Master’s degree exemption is completely unrelated to the H1B visa cap of 85,000 per year. Completely false information!

I do not have access to all the local newspapers which may be carrying different incorrect versions of this information. But I do suspect most of these versions were covered by the big newspapers (not a compliment!). I do not know exactly what was discussed in all the ‘panel discussions’ on news channels, so I cannot comment on that. However, I do not expect it to be any different than what I have seen on the websites. I was also appalled at people in high positions in various big name companies provide quotes on this matter without knowing anything about it in the first place.

What did concern me though was that this false information was said to have caused a fall in the share price of these big IT companies. This should not happen. The media loves to profit from sensationalizing new developments. But in the process, it should also be made aware of its responsibilities to report correct news. This is not something that should even be pointed out. It should form the basic bedrock of their whole operation. But the fact that a regular guy like me can dig up the correct information within an hour – all on the internet – while paid journalists do not bother to do so, and in fact report falsified information, is a definite cause for concern.

The Oxford Dictionary listed ‘post-truth’ to be the word of the year 2016. Its definition is: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. We always counted on the news media to show us what is actual truth and what is not – to separate the facts from the claims. But not any more. It now appears that as citizens of the world, we now need to verify what the media is reporting (or not reporting) prior to believing them. It is indeed a scary realization of today’s world – that the media is, in fact, part of the ‘post-truth world’.

I am sure that makes a sensational news story.

The New H1B Bill in US Congress: What It Really Means

I woke up yesterday morning to a rather sensational news item on many Indian news websites. The headline had various versions of the following statement: “Bill targeting H1-B visas reintroduced in US Congress”. I was curious. For someone who considers himself quite well informed concerning legal immigration developments in the US, this was rather surprising. Even my dad called me up to tell me about it making front page news in the morning newspaper in Bangalore! So I decided to dig deeper.

I spent about half an hour on the internet going through the text of the actual bill, looking up meanings of certain unfamiliar terms, finding the specific paragraphs of the original law that this bill proposed to modify and fully understand what was happening. And then I looked up what the Indian main stream media was saying.

Wow! It was just unbelievable! What the Indian media was saying was absolutely nothing in line with what was actually proposed in the bill. They were not just twisting words to imply a different meaning. They were actually reporting completely false information! It is absolutely appalling! Additionally, there was not a single source that gave the correct information on the bill and what it actually stands for.

Which is why I have taken it upon myself to lay out the actual implications of the bill properly here. In the next post, I will summarize what the Indian media is saying and the incorrect information being dispensed will become obvious.

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H1B Background and Purpose

The H1B visa is issued for high skilled foreign workers to enter the US and work on jobs for which skilled Americans are unavailable. The intent of the H1B visa is to complement the American workers with skilled foreign workers so that the American economy does not stagnate due to shortage of skilled labor. Typically, when an American company wants to hire a worker, they advertise the posting, receive applications, interview personnel and provide offers. If the worker being sought is a US citizen or a permanent resident, there is no issue and all is good. If the worker being sought is neither a US citizen nor a permanent resident, then the company can still hire the person under the H1B visa program. However, it has to follow some general rules and procedures to do so.

General Requirements/Procedures for H1B Visa

So what are these general rules? These rules are aimed at ensuring that the company is not misusing the visa program to employ low wage workers from outside the country when an equally skilled American worker is available or is being replaced. In summary, the following are what the company has to follow:

  1. Company must file a Labor Condition Application (LCA) which states the general information about the job such as period of employment, wages, location, and type of job. It should put up this notice at the work place so all workers of the company can see it and lodge complaints if there are any misrepresentation of facts on the LCA.
  2. At least the prevailing wage for that position in that industry is paid to the H1B worker.
  3. The H1B worker is not being hired during a union strike or similar situation.

If the company meets the above requirements/procedures, then the H1B will be granted to the foreign worker and he/she can work for the company. (This is of course subject to the lottery system). The key to note in the above 3 items is not what IS mentioned, but what IS NOT. The requirements do not specify that the job MUST be advertised in the US or that Americans must be given first preference during the hiring process.

Additional Requirements/Procedures for Certain Companies

All the above items that are NOT specified have made it fairly easy and simple for American companies to hire foreign workers. They are still required to pay the prevailing wage, so they cannot drastically underpay the foreign workers. However, over time, what has happened is that many companies have employed a large number of foreign workers without making any effort to hire American workers (and are termed ‘H1B Dependent Employer’). Specifically speaking, the H1B Dependent Employer (HDE) companies are those that have more than 15% of their work force under H1B visas. There are also many other companies who have actively abused the visa system’s requirements and have now been officially categorized as a ‘Willful Violator’ (WV).

Now, in order to discourage visa abuses by such companies, and to encourage companies to hire American workers (citizens and permanent residents) first (where available), the H1B visa program has additional requirements that the HDE and WV companies must adhere to prior to hiring a foreign worker under H1B. These are as follows:

  1. Advertise the job posting in the United States and make a ‘good faith’ effort to hire an American worker.
  2. If a qualified and eligible American worker is available, then the company cannot actively seek to hire a foreign worker in place of the American worker.
  3. The company cannot fire an American worker within 90 days before and 90 days after the LCA is made.
  4. The company cannot hire a foreign worker and post that worker in a location that belongs to a different employer.

Essentially, these requirements are targeted to ensure that there is no abuse of the visa program and that American workers are not discriminated against in favor of lower wage foreign workers. The potential visa abuses in the absence of these requirements are fairly obvious and as such, these requirements were considered necessary. Now keep in mind that these additional requirements are not applicable to all employers – only to those that fall under the HDE and WV categories.

The Exemption Loophole

But….there is always a but……there is a way out of these requirements for the HDE and WV companies. The HDE and WV companies can bypass these additional requirements if they hire a foreign worker who falls under the category of ‘Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant‘. So what does this ”Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant’ (EHN) mean? It’s actually very simple. A foreign worker is an EHN if:

  1. The worker has a Master’s degree in the field of the US job application for which the H1B is sought, OR
  2. The company is willing to offer a minimum of $60,000 annual salary to the foreign worker.

That’s it! If a foreign worker has a Master’s degree OR if the company is willing to pay minimum $60,000 per year, then the HDE and WV companies can completely bypass all the extra requirements aimed at containing visa abuse.

The Visa Abuse

To consider an example, a HDE company which has 50% of its workforce as H1B workers can hire another dozen of H1B workers, fire a dozen American workers who were working in the same company previously and replace them with the newly hired H1B workers – all by just paying them $60,000 per year or just because the H1B workers have a Master’s degree. (It is a whole other discussion on how easy it is to get a fake Master’s degree certificate for this purpose!) They could then also ship out the new H1B workers to locations of other employers and do their job for them. These other employers can then fire American workers at their company because now they have these potentially lower wage H1B workers doing the same job.

And if you think this kind of abuse does not happen, you are completely wrong. This is EXACTLY what happened when Cognizant and HCL – both HDE companies – sent their H1B workers to work at a Disney location where Disney had just laid off their American workers. What’s more? The American workers had to train the H1B workers as part of their severance package! Even as an Indian citizen and a holder of H1B visa, I would still say that is extremely unfair to the American workers. And how do you think the HDE companies got away with posting THEIR own H1B employees at some other company’s location? You guessed it right. The ‘Exempt H1B Non-Immigrant’ loophole! All they have to do is pay them $60,000 per year (which would have been significantly lower than what the American workers were making) and voila! You can displace any worker you like!

And the worst was still to come. The subsequent lawsuit that was filed by the fired employees was dismissed on the grounds that the hiring of H1B workers by Cognizant and HCL did not impact the firing of Disney workers because the Disney workers were not working for Cognizant or HCL. That is to say, one company can hire a H1B worker, post them to another company’s location, and the other company can fire an existing American worker – all within full legal means and with absolutely no consequence whatsoever!

Visa Abuse Impacts

What this does is two things. Firstly, it is inherently unfair to existing skilled American workers – citizens and permanent residents. But secondly, and more importantly, this abuse of work visas generates a lot of ill will among Americans and among the lawmakers regarding the utility of the H1B visa program overall. Over time, this ill will and negative perceptions will foster the bigger anti-immigrant rhetoric and discussion (as seen with the statements from incoming President Trump on H1B visas), thus leading to more protectionist measures being adopted that will benefit no one and in fact be detrimental to those who have been following the system the right way.

The New H1B Bill

Now coming to the proposed new bill, it offers the following changes to fix this loophole where HDE companies can bypass their additional requirements by hiring an H1B worker with a Master’s degree or by paying him a minimum salary of $60,000 pa:

  1. Raise the minimum salary for Exempt H1B worker to $100,000 and index it to inflation.
  2. Remove the Master’s degree exemption. This means that just because one has a Master’s degree does not make him qualified to be categorized under Exempt H1B worker.

So what this bill proposes to do is to close the loophole by raising the minimum salary for an EHN and by removing the Master’s exemption. Keep in mind that these HDE companies can still continue to hire H1B workers as long as they meet the other requirements. And it is also important to note that this provision does NOT apply to any company that is not on the HDE or WV list. Those companies can continue to hire H1B workers without any additional requirements. It also does not mean that EVERY H1B worker will have to be paid minimum salary of $100,000. (Every H1B worker will, however, be paid the prevailing wage at a minimum – which varies based on location, profession, level, etc). The HDE company will have to pay minimum $100,000 pa salary if they want to bypass the additional requirements listed above. And the bill definitely does not mean that the Master’s degree is mandatory to get an H1B visa!

So after studying this bill in full detail, I have to say that even though I am an Indian citizen who is on an H1B visa in the US, I support this bill. It does cut down a major loophole in the visa program that lets HDE companies to abuse the system. And it pains me to acknowledge that, yes, most of these HDE companies are Indian companies – HCL, Cognizant, Infosys, TCS, Wipro, etc. and get close to 80% of the H1B visas every year.

With regard to the bill itself, I would remind all that this is just introduced. The same bill was introduced last year and was scrapped. So I don’t think it will actually pass this time either, but I hope it does. Because if it passes, then there is going to be a bigger chance of these H1B visas going to those who play by the rules and truly deserve it. And in the long run, visa abuse will reduce thus fostering a positive opinion of this important program among the American people and lawmakers.

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In the next post, I will discuss all the incorrect information that the Indian media has been reporting.

LINKS:

H1B Language in Immigration and Nationality Act (Section 212 (n))

New H1B Bill Text (2016 version)

H1B Employer Notification Requirements

What are Exempt H1B NonImmigrants?

Recruiting Requirements for H1B Dependent Employers

Who is H1B Dependent Employer?

Disney H1B Lawsuit Judgment

Times of India Headline