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H-1B at 20: How the 'tech worker visa' is remaking IT

Patrick Thibodeau | Nov. 17, 2010
This news analysis is part of our special report on the 20th anniversary of the H-1B visa, which also includes first-person accounts from five IT workers who have been directly affected by the H-1B program and visual and interactive tools to help you analyze H-1B visa data.

Serrano's point is what makes the issue contentious. IT professionals who have been displaced from their jobs because of offshore outsourcing believe that the H-1B visa has made government a complicit partner in the shift of jobs. They maintain that the H-1B visa and offshoring have become inextricably linked, with offshore companies placing H-1B workers in client sites in the U.S. with the intention of ultimately transferring the work overseas.

Visa supporters say offshoring does not lessen U.S. companies' need to hire foreign students with strong academic achievements, high-tech skills and potential.

Entrenched and expanding

Hate it or embrace it, in its two decades, the H-1B visa has become an entrenched part of global IT business, and its importance in international trade is expanding.

President Barack Obama, in his visit to India this month, assured the Indian government that he doesn't see outsourcing as a bad thing.

"I don't think you've heard me make outsourcing a bogeyman during the course of my visit," said Obama in India, adding that the two countries "are operating on some stereotypes that have outlived their usefulness."

The U.S. wants to expand its trade with India, selling products like aircraft, power-generation technology, and consumer goods into its vast market. The Indians want access to the U.S. IT market. And for that, they need visas.

The rise of the OPT extension

In the years leading up to the recession in 2008, demand for H-1B visas exceeded the annual supply of 85,000, some years by 60,000 or more.

The Bush administration, unable to persuade Congress to increase the visa cap, developed an alternative strategy: It extended the amount of time a foreign student with a science, technology, engineering or math degree can work for a private employer without a work visa, from 12 to 29 months. Critics called it an H-1B extension by other means.

Since that White House action in mid-2008, nearly 20,000 students have applied for what is called the Optional Practical Training (OPT) extension. Given that demand for H-1B visas has been sluggish for the past two years, and that H-1B visa fees were increased this year, critics wonder whether foreign workers are using OPT extensions rather than H-1B visas to remain in the U.S.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency keeps track of every OPT request and the hiring company but typically doesn't distribute the information. It produced the list in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by an anonymous source, who subsequently made the list available to Computerworld. The list was verified by ICE.


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