Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘H1-B’

Immigration: Employment Controls in an Age of Giganomics

In immigration on October 1, 2011 at 10:11 am

A colleague of mine, Beth Mynatt, recently spoke at the World Economic Forum. She came back with many ideas, including introducing me to the idea of giganomics. Giganomics is economics for a time in employment when people are far more likely to have a series of “gigs” than become the “organization man”, someone who has a single job for life. The idea of giganomics caused me to reflect once again on the immigration system we have in the United States, and the one we might want.

Employment-based visas (I am deliberately excluding family-based and marriage-based here) are controlled. The purpose of the control is to ensure that the labor market remains favourable for citizens and permanent residents, while simultaneously creating advantages for the country by being able to capitalize on foreign talent. This seems very reasonable in the abstract.

Employment-based visas typically come with three forms of controls today: employer, time and caps. Most visas tie their holder to a particular corporation, exclusively. In the age of giganomics I wonder whether this is the most effective way to control a visa. For one thing, it puts large employers with their full-time immigration staff, their financial resources, etc… in far better positions than it does small to medium size corporations such as start ups.

My H1-B worked this way, and when I left Lucent and moved to Xerox, the six months I spent in the United Kingdom was waiting for my H1-B to be transferred from one organization to another. We can, and I certainly did, blame the INS for slow processing times. Perhaps we should also inspect this notion of employer controls. Are there some visas for whom being tied to an employer is not the advantage that we want to create in the American labor market? Who would those people be? Would the University play a role in identifying them?

The second set of controls involve periods of time. After this period of time is up, immigrants have either moved on to another visa or its time to leave. The H1-B is a good example, it is valid for a total of six years, but those six years are broken down by three years, two years, and then a final one year. I’m wondering whether this periodicity is helpful? It means that the default is that the INS process the same person three times in the course of six years.

It maybe the case that its considered desirable to keep a close eye on the employee or have the ability to say that their skills are no longer required (and deny the visa), but employers can do this too by simply terminating the employee thus rendering their visa invalid, at least for those visas that have some relationship between being employed and visa validity. What if the periodicity was one six year visa, or two three year visas. Consider the amount of time and money saved by the individual, the employer, and the Government.

Caps (i.e., number available in a particular year) do get discussed, there are caps on the H1-B visa. Are there two few or two many, the cap routinely changes in response to employer requests. This fluctuation and the dialog between corporate America and the Federal Government, is that a good model for implementing this control? I don’t know but I think it’s worth asking, and it is reflective of more of a conversation between constituents, unlike my own feeling of being in a system that really never thought to communicate with me.

Anyway, on the day when the caps for visas are reset, Oct 1, the start of the Federal Government’s fiscal year, I want to put another shout in for a conversation about immigration that doesn’t begin and end with policing illegals, but also includes a discussion about what we, the American people, actually want for our country, what we want in terms of a system that encourages the best of foreign talent while preserving advantage in the labor market for citizens, and how we might control it while also considering the costs to individuals, employers and the government for executing on those controls.


H1-B Exile: In Which I Became a Visiting Scientist Luckily

In immigration on April 15, 2011 at 9:41 am

Generally, I tell people that I’ve been employed by three institutions since graduating. Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and now Georgia Tech.

But there’s a fourth place I spent five months. Xerox EuroPARC in Cambridge, the United Kingdom. I describe it on my vita as a Visiting Researcher. I was a visting researcher, visiting England and EuroPARC because the INS was transfering my H1-B visa from one company to another. When I left Bell Labs, I wanted to start work at Xerox PARC, but the INS had other ideas about that. Specifically, the dual-intent H1-B visa is employer specific. So, in addition to the caps on the visa, the fact that it’s one of the few that’s dual-intent, it is also tied to a particular employer and a switch requires reprocessing.

Perhaps this made sense when employment was more traditionally for life, but that’s not the typical case today.

Unfortunately, the modern world is not the one that the INS promotes for its foreign workforce. There is no nimble or agile move, one that might be of benefit to the new employer (presumably since the candidate has been through a rigorous interview including demonstrating that they are more qualified for the job than any available American in order to qualify for the visa in the first place). Instead, it is time to enter a period of processing ambiguity.

For the future employee that is a period of unpaid exile (since the person can not be employed by the new employer). There is no grace period (well not one long enough) in which one can remain in the United States while the processing occurs. So, the lucky “customer” wins a trip home with no specified end-date.

And I was lucky, very lucky indeed.

I was lucky that there was a possibility for me to continue in my research career in a place where I was legally able to work, the United Kingdom. I was even luckier that there was a group of talented individuals whom I got to know through the course of this visit. I also got lucky that the UK was seeing very rapid adoption of SMS among teenagers and I was able to study this.

I was also lucky that I had a support system in the United States. I left the country, but I was still receiving a variety of mail. Since it was my intention to come back, I did not want to re-route all this paperwork to England. I needed an address where the material could go. I also was required by Bell Labs to perform a roll-over of some of my accrued retirement, one that was nearly impossible to do from outside the country (favourite advice “just call this 1-800 number”, only possible from inside the U.S.). I needed help to manage these matters while I was in exile..

Thank you to both my support systems. The one in the U.S. who held down the fort. And the one in the U.K. who developed my career in an exciting new direction. The opportunities and interactions I had in Cambridge have lasted far longer than the time I spent there. I was very lucky.

And so this is probably the last of these posts. I’ve called attention to what I think the problems are of our current immigration system for the people that it serves. In this post I also want to highlight the problems that the current immigration system poses for employers, the backbone of America’s economic vitality and continued success. This system has failed them as well as me.

Adventures in Intent: F1&H1-B

In immigration on March 15, 2011 at 9:42 pm

In 1991 I was offered a Fulbright Scholarship that would cover a portion of my Ph.D. It was an attractive offer. At the time I was choosing between two institutions, UC Irvine and a British University. I wanted to go to Irvine, but to do so I needed funding. The Fulbright was some of that funding, and I was very tempted. But ultimately, I declined it, (and before I received the scholarship that would let me attend UC Irvine).

Why decline the Fulbright?

Because it came with an Intent to Return clause (also have heard it described as the “go home clause” and more formally it’s known as the foreign or home residency requirement) on my visa. The Intent to Return is a condition that requires the visa holder to return to their country of origin and reside there for two years post completion of their studies before they may re-enter the United States. Not all visas come with this stipulation, but I was told that it was very common for people who received Fulbright scholarships to end up with this Intent to Return attached to their visa.

I didn’t like that idea. I wasn’t sure I knew what I wanted to do post-Ph.D., but I was pretty sure I didn’t want conditions attached to my decision. And I was incredibly lucky that I had choices. I could decline the Fulbright, because I had another option in the U.K. Ultimately I received a no stipulations fellowship from the U.K. that would allow me to go to Irvine and support me for most of the way through the program.

I can understand one rationale for the Go Home clause, it’s the idea that people can receive education in the U.S. and take the results of that and apply it back in their country of origin. At the same time I think there is a risk and a challenge in asking that. The risk is that if we discover really talented people while they are in the course of their program that we lose them. The challenge we ask of anyone who accepts these terms is that they know how their lives will be in 5-6 years. I know I couldn’t have made a good prediction about my life at the age of many people who enter the PhD program, in my early 20s.

Intent is an interesting term in the U.S. immigration system. Broadly there are two categories of intent. Intent to not stay (the Go Home clause is a very particular instance of this), but many visas mean that their holder is only here temporarily, and Intent to Stay (the Greencard is a good example of this).

Have you ever wondered why the H1-B is such an important visa? Why do so many immigrants want an H1-B visa ?Why is it so popular that the caps for these visas run out each year, long before the end of the year and all the people who need one have one? What creates the demand? The H1-B visa is one of the few visas that has “dual intent.” It’s a visa which you can apply for while on a student “intent to return” visa and one that while holding it you can apply for an “intent to stay” visa. You can’t apply for a greencard immediately after having a student visa if you are a worker, you have to apply for the H1-B visa, and you have to be on that visa before you can apply for the greencard.

Now what makes this particularly curious is that when you apply for the greencard as a worker, you go through a variety of work-related tests. You are tested to ensure that your job meets certain labor standards. You are assessed on your qualifications as to whether you, above all others, should hold it and for its relevance to the United States. So, if the greencard is an examination of work-related abilities, why can’t you when you finish school and start employment immediately transfer from one to the other? I’ve never understood the work that the H1-B is doing other than generating a lot of additional processing for the immigration authorities. I spent 6 years on an H1-B visa. I did not want to do so, but I had no choice, I had to apply post-PhD for the H1-B in order to be eligible to apply for the greencard.

In a series of posts I’ve had asking questions about the US immigration system, I ask two today. First, what risks do we incur when we ask people to “go home?” Second, what work is the H1-B doing if there are processes for a work-based greencard that test someones abilities (as well as their health, criminal record, etc…) that make delaying the vetting for permanent residence and the use of the H1-B desirable?

Secondary Inspection, Shredding and Help: A Greencard Story

In immigration on March 7, 2011 at 11:39 am

Secondary Inspection is the second round of immigration that is typically reserved for people who have immigration “issues” when they arrive in the United States. For example, the first time I went to secondary inspection I queued behind a lady from some part of the world where having a visa issued by the U.S. State Department was essential for travel into the United States. Unfortunately, she did not have said visa, so here she was in that part of the U.S. that is the secondary inspection area.

What, you ask, was I doing there? Well there’s a category of immigration that comes with automatic secondary inspection.

I submitted my Permanent Resident (a.k.a. greencard) materials shortly after transferring from Bell Labs to Xerox PARC. At the time I filed for the greencard, I had also filed for and been given the final extension possible on my H1-B (you can only hold an H1-B visa for a total of six years). I had two years to get the application for my Greencard approved. Surely it couldn’t take longer than that.

Two years later my H1-B ended and my greencard had not been processed. I entered a new phase of maintaining legal status in the country. Now I would, until my greencard was processed, apply, each year, for two documents.One to allow me to legally work in the U.S. and one that allowed me to travel in and out of the country for business. Each is a separate document, process and fee. It was during this period that I applied for the interim work authority, while my greencard application was in progress, but because the system could not process either application in tim, I also had to apply for an emergency interim work authority. Three filings, processes, and fees to maintain my legal status in the country.

It was the travel documents that triggered secondary inspection with each return into the U.S. I found the visible sending to Secondary Inspection, quite embarrassing, since you have to do it in front of all the other people in the immigration area. Hopefully you can imagine being sent to a backroom unlike most other people… I wondered whether they thought I was trying to somehow abuse or go around the system, I was actually trying to do everything to the letter of the law. Secondary inspection, for me, was like participating in Mastermind (made harder by having just gotten off a 8-10 hour flight). I was taken to a small interview room and asked a series of questions about my time in the United States. By this point I had well over a decade of experience. I was apologetic that I could not remember the first date I’d ever arrived in the United States, I explained that I was 7 and that I was a B-2 dependent visa holder and that Jimmy Carter was the serving President and that I’d entered the U.S. through JFK. I could remember the date and place of my second entry (Los Angeles, 19th Sept, 1991 about 9pm), but I had trouble remembering whether it was the 5th or 6th entry into the country that was my first entry through Chicago’s O’Hare. After about 15-20 minutes of this, I was allowed to enter the U.S. Each time I travelled in, I travelled on a document issued by the INS that they trusted so little that they wanted to check me out at this level of detail.

And so I continued to wait, until the shredding news story came to my attention. Apparently the California Service Center had discovered a new means of reducing backlogs by shredding applications. Of course, my application was pending at the California Service Center. So, a new question crossed my mind, had my materials been shredded (I only got the answer to this when I went for my naturalization interview, it took two officers to carry my materials into the interview room! My lawyer told me she’d never seen a file so thick, a rare moment of immigration pride for me).

I decided to call the INS help line. Three days later I’d not managed to get through. (I called recently regarding my naturalization process, and got through, so kudos to the USCIS for that!)

It was at this point that I decided I needed the help of my citizen husband. We wrote, three times each, to our local Representative, Nancy Pelosi, and to each of our Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. I learnt that each of them had at least one member of staff devoted exclusively to immigration matters. Additionally, members of Congress and their staff have a separate line to the INS, one where people answered! My in person visit with one of the staff members was particularly well timed since her office happened to be working on another British immigration case, apparently a member of a very high profile British rock band was having trouble getting the visa he needed to enter the United States for his upcoming tour. The staffer was happy to put in a call about both of our cases together.

Something magical happened shortly after I came to the attention of my members of Congress (it took three letters to each, hand delivered the second and third times), which was that my application got processed and approved. I wonder whether multiple offices had asked the INS about the same case, and maybe the agents decided that instead of putting it back into the pile of to process, they ought to process it.

My greencard was a 4 year wait, punctuated by yearly applications, multiple fingerprintings, and ultimately enough frustration to trigger engaging the U.S. political and representative system to see whether I could get help.

I offer this as another point of reflection on whether we could do and want something better.