Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Immigrant Death Spiral

I have been seeing a lot of job requirements coming to my Inbox lately that have in their subject-line "US citizens only" in capital letters. Just in case you missed it there, that statement is repeated in screaming big, bold, underlined font in the first line of the message. These come from recruiters who have me in their database often from many years ago. The skills they are seeking are relatively new technologies so the age group that is most likely to have them would be in the early to mid-twenties. For a really esoteric mix of skills a recruiter will add "Green Cards and Citizens Only. Absolutely no visas (H-1 or EAD)" figuring that compromise will widen the net and result in making a hire more quickly.

I can't help feeling bemused at these emails specially in light of today's tough job market. The immigrants in the technology business who are required to go through what is sometimes a decade long obstacle course to get a Green Card have very limited ability to change jobs or work in cutting-edge technologies. They seek out the safest jobs they can which are usually also the ones where investment in technology innovation is minimal to absent.

The law requires them to remain in the same position and same pay level at which they were originally sponsored by their employer. Should they decide to change either job responsibilities or pay, they will need to restart the permanent residency process, give up their hard-earned spot in the queue. Several Indian and Chinese techies of my acquaintance have been on the same job for close to ten years because they hesitate to rock the boat and derail the entire immigration process. The decision to put roots in America is often at the cost of sacrificing their career aspirations entirely. Yet it is the price many immigrants are willing to pay for the American Dream - in hopes for a better life for their children.

By when these folks do become eligible to apply for jobs that expressly shun all work visas, they no longer have the skills necessary to qualify for them. Then we have the locals who see little hope of making a viable career in the technology business given the rampant outsourcing culture in corporate America. Why would they go into deep student loan induced debt in the process of getting a degree in computer science if they are almost guaranteed to be displaced by a foreign worker within a few years.

So, with protectionism at work these days and recruiters giving in to the popular "hire local" sentiment, the quest for this Unicorn that is an US citizen and has the right skills for a high technology job becomes quite an ordeal. After a while, I will start to get emails with the same job requirements that will say EADs (a temporary work permit that is given to those who are waiting in line to get a permanent residency card to be alloted to them. This wait can be as long as ten years today is likely to grow even longer) are acceptable and if even that fails it will slide down further to allow the much maligned H1s - the favorite punching bag for any and all anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Even after doing all that, given the severe (and often punitive) employment restrictions on H1 visa holders, chances are that the companies seeking these skills would have to do one of two very unpalatable things, get someone younger and possessing the right technology skills and experience from a different country on a brand new H1 visa or send the job offshore. Neither option is particularly helpful to the jobless citizens of this country or to those who aspire to become its citizens at some point.

This combination of unfortunate circumstances - the tethering of H1s to their sponsoring employer in what frequently becomes a decade long death trap, the inhumanely long and painful permanent residency process and close to no incentive for locals to consider education and career in technology - helps create an unending death spiral.

It consists of yet more job displacement, yet more new immigrants being added to the hopper who then line up for permanent residency choking up an already broken and dysfunctional system; the addition of newly minted permanent residents and citizens who have been hobbled by the immigration system to the point where they are ineffective in regenerating America with talent and innovation. This whole system is a travesty of justice and fair-play in more ways than can be counted and renders the premise of American meritocracy completely unsustainable.

This article was first posted on Blogcritics.


USS said...

"a" U.S. Citizen, not "an" U.S. Citizen.

There are exceptions to the "an comes before vowels" rule.

nitwit nastik said...

Very well put. Excellent article. You captured the problem precisely.

H-1B visa laws have become a political ploy nowadays. It's great for political rhetoric and great for scoring political brownie points.

amreekandesi said...

I don't have a green card yet, and am many years away from that.

But i have known people who had to stick with an employer who sucked their blood dry, while they were waiting for the green card.

The current trend of protectionism doesn't augur well for anybody. Immigrants will suffer of course, but so will American industry.

Vishal said...

Yup, the rise of protectionism is going to hurt H1-B visa holders in the short run, and US in the long run. "Hiring locals" policy does seem moral when looked though the eyes of those (locals) who lost their jobs in this economic turndown. But the employers suffer as they struggle to find high end skills to get their business going as before. And if emplyers suffer, the economy in turn suffers more, hurting the locals for which the whole vicious cycle started in the first place.

Heartcrossings said...

USS - Thanks for the grammar lesson :)

nitwik nastik - You are right. H1-B rhetoric makes for great political game playing at the expense of foreigners who put their lives in line in the hopes a better future.

amreerkandesi - Good luck with your immigration journey if you plan on beginning one in US. There are many other options that become unavailable to those who have been mired in the US immigration process for too long. This is a long term commitment that drain the life-force out of a person.

Vishal - Protectionism and capitalism just don't go together. The "American Dream" is ab initio void when protectionism kicks in and talent will flow where it is openly welcome.