Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 00:03 UK

US work visa applications dry up

By Salim Rizvi
New York

Venkatesh Shuklaw, Nusym
Mr Shukla says his firm could benefit from new visa rules

As an Indian American entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, Venkatesh Shukla has been hiring software professionals from India for years.

This has not always been easy because in order to get work visas for Nusym's staff he has had to compete with large US companies such as Microsoft or Indian software companies such as Infosys and Wipro.

But now he expects it to be easier to get visas for professionals working for his company, because many big companies no longer sponsor foreign workers applying for work visas.

That is partly because they are hiring fewer people during the recession, but also because of a new set of government rules.

Applications slow

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues H1B work visas designed to bring highly skilled foreign professionals into the US.

We are still accepting petitions, so folks who are interested should apply and get their petitions in
Sharon Scheidhauer, USCIS

Companies have to sponsor their employees and file visa applications to get foreign workers up to a set quota every year.

This year the limit for these visas is 65,000.

The US immigration department is inviting applications for H1B visas for its 2010 quota year, which begins on 1 October 2009.

Eight weeks after the time for the filing of petitions began, only around 45,000 H1B visa applications have been received.

In the past, the H1B quota used to fill up within a week.

"We are still accepting petitions, so folks who are interested should apply and get their petitions in," says Sharon Scheidhauer from USCIS in New York City.

Different situation

Employment lawyer Prashanti Reddy
Indian professionals are just afraid to come here because they are hearing so much bad news about the economy and layoffs
Employment lawyer Prashanthi Reddy

IT professionals from India have been much in demand in the US in recent years. In past years, more than 60% of the H1B visas were granted to professionals from India.

But this year, things are different.

Firstly, the big companies that have been hit by the recession are neither hiring staff themselves nor giving much business to the IT companies that might have hired foreign professionals themselves.

But also, the US Congress has forbidden companies and banks that receive funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (Tarp) from hiring foreign workers.

Hard to get

The strict implementation of immigration rules by US authorities has made matters worse for foreign workers.

Manhattan-based Indian American lawyer Prashanthi Reddy has mainly Indian-origin clients who are either based in India or the US. She also maintains one office in the Indian city of Hyderabad.

"Indian professionals are just afraid to come here because they are hearing so much bad news about the economy and layoffs," she says.

"Also, the USCIS seems to be clamping down hard on Indian consulting companies, which are owned by Indian nationals."

"It could be that they found some rotten apples and they think that the entire basket is bad. The work visa rules have always been there, but the USCIS is now implementing them more rigorously."

The USCIS requires H1B applicants to provide many documents, including photos and brochures of the office, tax returns as well as the work orders, contracts and client letters.

All that makes the process tedious for many companies and it is also expensive. H1B visas cost around $5,000 (£3,131) per person.

Yet there are some Indian American companies who are hiring Indian professionals because it is easier to get H1B visas this time.

Foreign workers, who are already working in the US on H1B visas, are facing problems getting their visas extended, however, or getting sponsors to apply for a green card.

"They are in a lot of trouble, because some have lost jobs while some sponsors are not willing to follow up," says Ms Reddy.

"So people who have lived here for five to 10 years are forced to pack up and leave."

Strict rules

Some H1B visa holders have been waiting for their precious green cards for many years now.

Ashish Sharma is an Indian IT professional who is employed by a company in California. He came to the US on an H1B visa 10 years ago.

He says there is a big backlog of Indians waiting for green cards.

"The sense of uncertainty and the restrictions on job search and career development lead to the dilemma that it might be worth going to some place where one easily gets work and life is easy," he adds.

Indian workers are calling for comprehensive immigration reforms in America, including changes in work visa rules.

But American lawmakers are having none of it.

Senators Dick Durbin from Illinois and Charles Grassley from Iowa have reintroduced a bill on the H1B visa programme.

It calls for increased oversight and enforcement and discourages the use of H1B visa holders.

It also requires all employers to pledge that the H1B visa-holder will not displace an American worker.

But many Indians strongly object to some provisions of the bill saying they are against the principles of free trade.

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