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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.

The data shows which institutions are using the OPT extension and in what ways. [For more detail, see Non-visa foreign student work applications filed since mid-2008 for a searchable, sortable database of Optional Practical Training extension requests filed by U.S. employers.]

Foreign students, particularly from top-tier universities, are being employed at large firms. At Carnegie Mellon University, for instance, Intel has six OPT extension students working for it; Oracle has eight students.

But the university that has the largest number of students who applied for OPT extensions is a relatively small one. Students at Stratford University in Falls Church, Va., accounted for 730 OPT extensions in 2009 alone, and many of the companies employing them are IT consulting and services firms, often with offices in India.

Stratford has an enrollment of about 2,000 full-time students, with about 40% in computer-science-related programs. Most of the foreign students are in the master's program and make up about three-fourths of the enrollment, according to university President Richard Shurtz. Last year, Stratford expanded with a campus in New Delhi, in conjunction with a private manufacturing group.

Some 30 countries are represented at Stratford, with students from India representing the largest share. Many of the Indian students enroll in graduate software engineering courses, and with the OPT extension, they can get nearly three years of experience in the U.S., and then go home "and get great jobs," says Shurtz.

"If the U.S. wants to continue to be an economic power, they are going to have to absorb those workers in the U.S. in support of our economy instead of sending them home," he contends, adding that the H-1B visa "allows us to keep that brain power."

Small shops remake the IT landscape

H-1B critics have focused their attention primarily on large offshore firms that employ some H-1B workers in the U.S. (Infosys Technologies Ltd. (INFY), for example, received 4,559 H-1B visas in 2008.)

But separately, the H-1B visa has changed the IT consulting landscape, creating a new type of company -- technically a U.S. company, but one that is staffed primarily by H-1B visa holders and often has offices overseas, usually in India, where client work is completed. These firms represent a new kind of competition in the IT consulting marketplace.

A sampling of the makeup of these firms was detailed in a lawsuit filed by the TechServe Alliance in Alexandria, Va. The organization, which represents a handful of such firms, filed the suit against the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) over an interpretation of its rules.


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