Ending H-1B visa renewals won’t help put ‘America First’

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This column is part of a series called “Voices of Women in Tech,” created in collaboration with AnitaB.org, a global enterprise that supports women in technical fields, as well as the organizations that employ them and the academic institutions training the next generation.

As the daughter of a family of overachievers in Kolkata, India, I knew that an advanced degree from an American university would put me on a path to success. With just two suitcases filled with belongings, I came to this country — where I knew practically no one — to study for a master’s degree in computer and information sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

After an initial period of homesickness, I discovered that I loved my new American life.

I loved the people here, their friendliness, their openness to new cultures. I felt safe in our neighborhoods. I liked the interest in sports and outdoor activities. I was quite comfortable being myself here: In America, there was almost no judgment about how I decided to live my life.

After graduation, I married my husband, a software engineer working at Microsoft, and moved to Seattle. Like all highly skilled immigrants who want to work in the U.S., I had to obtain an H-1B visa with sponsorship from my employer. In 2011, I took a job as a test automation developer at Research in Motion (now Blackberry), and my H-1B journey began.

In 2014, I took a job with SAP Concur, where I currently work. My new employer filed paperwork for me to obtain my permanent residency authorization, often known as a “green card” — an arduous process filled with reams of official documents and lengthy responsibilities. The green card checklist also includes proving that I am not taking the job of a qualified U.S. citizen. As required, my employer advertised my job for six weeks, then observed a second six-week waiting period. 

“We’d be canceling all the plans we’d made — plans based on a promise that we were welcome.”

When you hear politicians claim that H-1B visa holders are stealing jobs from Americans, you can be sure that this is the furthest thing from the truth. Even now, I cannot work a second job, earn freelance income, or become an entrepreneur. If I were to lose my job, I would need to find another and transfer my visa within two months to maintain my status.

Because I am from India, my green card paperwork entered a queue of backlogged applications. Every country — regardless of its population or number of qualified emigrants — is given the same annual immigration quota, so the backlog for China and India increases every year. Roughly 30,000 Indian immigrants apply for green cards annually; less than 10,000 are processed. Because of this bottleneck, the current wait time for an India-born engineer’s green card is many years longer than for nationals of other countries.

Like all H-1B visa holders, I am allowed to remain in the U.S. as I wait for the necessary approvals, so long as I remain employed with the sponsoring company and renew my H-1B visa every three years. Now, under the current presidential administration, that may all go away.

With the proposed change in regulations, immigrants in the green card queue will not be offered automatic H-1B visa renewals. Without visas, 750,000 Indian software engineers would suddenly have to leave the country, virtually overnight. We’d be forced to sell our homes and break our leases, destroying the housing markets in tech-focused regions. We’d be forced to take our kids out of schools and disrupt extended families. We’d have to stop work on critical projects for our employers. We’d be canceling all the plans we’d made — plans based on a promise that we were welcome, and able to put down roots as we made our way to the front of the line.

“Immigrants have been an important part of America’s story; the software industry is merely the latest chapter.”

As heartbreaking as such a change of fortune would be for me personally, there’s a far larger problem for the tech industry, and the entire nation. Although the Trump administration claims the proposed change would help the country “buy American, hire American,” it’s not going to create jobs … at least not for Americans. The lengthy green card process has already proven that there are no other qualified applicants for the roles that H-1B visa holders fill.

At many tech employers — and countless other companies where tech provides infrastructure behind a non-technical product — in Silicon Valley, up to half of employees could disappear. More than 40,000 companies submitted H-1B visa applications in fiscal year 2016. How would companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple continue to thrive? How would firms like Accenture, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, and JP Morgan Chase continue to excel? (All of these companies are among the top employers of H-1B visa holders.)

Who would backfill these 750,000 vacant jobs? We already know there is a huge gap between tech jobs and available employees. If you care about the number of women in STEM jobs, brace yourself for those numbers to plummet: South Asian or East Asian women are overrepresented in the software industry relative to their white peers. Without enough qualified domestic employees, employers will send projects sent overseas. If we send 750,000 tech workers home, it’s far more likely that the jobs will follow them back to India and China via outsourcing; the dollars will simply flow beyond U.S. borders altogether. International graduate students — who provide an important pillar of higher education as teaching assistants and research associates — would think twice about heading for U.S. universities, given such a hostile job market. So much for “making American great again.”

I am a fourth-generation engineer. If I have a daughter, I would encourage her to uphold this family tradition. By losing both me and my husband — who is also an H-1B visa holder — this country would also lose our children, and successive generations of college-educated kids aiming for successful careers. Like most H-1B visa holders, we are well-settled with our own house. We raise the bar for American society. With our high salaries, we pay a lot of taxes. But because we have no voting rights, we are easily overlooked by political parties.

“When uninformed people say ‘the immigrants are taking away your jobs,’ use reason and facts to explain why they are wrong.”

Immigrants have been an important part of America’s story; the software industry is merely the latest chapter.

I am not an “alien” coming to rob you of your livelihood. I am just a happily married, middle-class woman in her thirties with the same hopes and dreams as you. I am an avid reader. I love to cook. On weekends, I hike in the Pacific Northwest with my husband. I have a great rapport with my coworkers and friends, and I cheer for the Seattle Seahawks. I can’t let a racist administration uproot me from this land of opportunity, this home that I chose.

How can you help? When uninformed people say “the immigrants are taking away your jobs,” use reason and facts to explain why they are wrong. Tell people about your immigrant friends and colleagues, people who add value to our society. Talk to your representatives about making changes to our current immigration policies that process green card applications without any country-of-origin bias

But, most importantly, understand that the current administration’s xenophobic policies are causing immigrants — and, in fact, the whole world — to doubt the sincerity of the American ideals of justice, equality, and opportunity.

I sincerely believe the United States is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Don’t prove me wrong.

Sayari Ghosh

Sayari Ghosh is a fourth-generation engineer, currently working as a Software Development Engineer at SAP Concur. She earned her master’s degree in computer and information science from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and her bachelor’s degr…More

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