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Press about Auriga

Feb 23, 2003

The H-1B controversy

The Telegraph,
Brad Leighton, Telegraph Staff

Glenn Connell of New Ipswich has advanced degrees in both computer science and physics and has several years of experience in computer programming.

Now he is working as a carpenter.

"I'm one of the lucky ones. At least I have carpentry skills. There are many other programmers that are unemployed and don't have any other way to make a decent living," Connell said.

In Amherst, Dmitry Kolomyitsev, in the United States on an H-1B visa, pounds away at a keyboard writing software code for Auriga Inc.

During the high-technology boom, finding an available software programmer sometimes sparked bidding wars between companies. But even then, the issue of bringing temporary high-technology workers into the United States was a controversial subject.

Now, with hundreds of programmers out of work, the H-1B visa debate has taken on an even more emotional tone.

Dwayne Jeffrey, the president of Sardus Software Inc. and a longtime critic of the H-1B program, said that no one should blame the H-1B recipients themselves, but there are fundamental flaws with the idea of bringing in high-technology workers only to send them home six years later.

"Ninety-five percent of the people with H-1B visas are honest, hardworking people who just want an opportunity to support their families so they can go home to a better life," Jeffrey said.

"They aren't to blame. These are people that are willing to slave at the computer screen for 16 hours a day for six years. The fault lies with the politicians for allowing this thing to get out of hand. It is just wrong-headed logic."

The problems with the system are numerous, well-documented and amount to an indentured servitude program for foreign software engineers, Jeffrey said.

And the program costs highly skilled domestic high-technology workers both wages and jobs, he added.

The Government Accounting Office and the federal Department of Labor have both issued reports critical of the program, and there have been several news articles outlining specific instances of H-1B program abuse.

Critics say that despite legislation that is supposed to ensure H-1B workers are paid the prevailing wage, in reality they are paid less. The H-1B recipients are often put in an exploitable position because if they lose their job, they are then deported back to their country of origin.

Worse, the critics say, is when the H-1B recipients return to their native country they take American technology with them.

"Most aren't directly stealing something, but we are educating the foreign work force through our visa program and we are doing it at the expense of U.S. engineers and our taxpayer dollars," Jeffrey said.

The same employers who are importing temporary workers are cutting back on their training programs for domestic workers, he added.

"It isn't immigration I'm opposed to," he added. "I think one of the solutions would be to bring these high-technology workers in under green cards. The process for green cards is a lot more stringent and those people are here to stay and have long-term investment in this country. They also have the ability to change jobs. H-1Bs don't have that luxury."

But Alexis Sukharev, the president of Auriga, denies that H-1B visa workers are paid less than domestic engineers, and that the H-1B program is "just a drop in the bucket" of American unemployment now.

According to the GAO, H-1B visa holders rarely complain that they are being mistreated or underpaid, but in the instances they did complain investigators found labor violations in 83 percent of the cases.

Still, Sukharev said, there aren't that many H-1B visas being issued now.

"There were 79,100 H-1B visas issued last fiscal year, but how many actually came? The last H-1B visa applicant we actually got was in January 2001. We put in 12 to 15 H-1B applications and most were approved last fiscal year. We paid $1,000 for each application, but none of those we applied for are actually here," Sukharev said.

In the three to six months it took each application to be processed, the economy changed, so none of the applicants was brought over, he added.

"The thing is that even though there is a lot of interest in the H-1B issue, we aren't talking about a lot of people. Even though there were 79,000 visas issued last year, there are much less than that many people actually here."

The cap on the number of H-1B visas issued was 195,000 last year, but reverts to the original 65,000 this year. The federal Immigration and Naturalization Service has no way of accounting for exactly how many H-1B visa workers are now in the United States. There could be as many as 5,000 H-1B visa holders working in New Hampshire, but officials with the state Department of Employment Security say that is just an educated guess.

In addition, U.S. law is more relaxed when domestic firms transfer workers from foreign branches. So companies can skirt the H-1B limits and expenses by using an L-1 worker transfer visa.

"Do we still need the H-1B program? I think so. I think it is very good for this country," Sukharev said. "It's a free market program."

Sukharev argues that, despite short-term pain, in the global economy U.S. firms must be allowed to compete for resources, including inexpensive labor. His company specializes in outsourcing the writing of software code to software engineers in Russia. As long as companies are careful whom they partner with, they shouldn't be concerned about sending work and information overseas, he said.

Kolomyitsev, who was born in Ukraine and lived in Turkistan, was brought to the United States because he has a highly specific list of skills and is able to interact with software engineers in Russia, Sukharev said.

James McKim, a member of the Software Association of New Hampshire's H-1B Task Force, agrees with Sukharev that there is a place for H-1B visas, but he also said companies should do more to give domestic software engineers upgraded skills.

"Here's the rub. Companies want people that can meet their deadlines for getting a product to market. They don't want people that need time to be retrained. They are looking for people with 10 out of 10 skills. If you don't have 10, they don't want to talk to you," McKim said.

Employers find it difficult to find people with the skills they want for a price they are willing to pay, so they look for H-1B visa applicants.

"Maybe they just have nine out of the 10 skills they require, but they are cheaper," McKim said.

Employers will list skills typical of a seasoned software engineer, but advertise the job as junior level, said Caroline Bogart of Litchfield, a software consultant. They then use the fact that they can't fill the job as an excuse to bring in an H-1B visa holder.

"People brought in under the H-1B visa are treated like slaves," Bogart said. "They make half of what I make and they aren't allowed to quit their job or they are deported."

In the long term, the United States is killing its own competitiveness on the world market, Bogart said.

"Companies should be investing in their domestic workers, not bringing in cheaper workers, training them and then sending them back overseas where they can compete against us," Bogart said.

"Right now we have thousands of very smart people that are unemployed. These are people ready and willing to learn."

However, 90 percent of the H-1B applicants also apply for permanent resident status, Sukharev said.

Kolomyitsev is in the last stages of receiving his green card. "I was born in the Ukraine, but lived in Turkistan; so I don't really have any country at all. Living in the United States means stability for me, my wife and my daughter."

After a pause he continues, "I love this country."

Brad Leighton can be reached at 594-6446.

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