Tom Malone played the immigration lottery last spring - and won twice.
The prize was a pair of H-1B visas, allowing him to hire two Indian-born researchers for his New Haven-based start-up company.
Michael Emons wasn't so lucky. Emons, a part-time administrator of a medical practice in Torrington, received only a tearful phone call. A medical resident he planned to hire didn't receive an H-1B - she was left out in a wave of strong national demand for the visas, as the supply is limited by federal law.
"We can no longer consider people with visa issues," said Emons, who has tried and failed for two years to obtain an H-1B visa for a doctor. Trying to hire U.S.-born doctors in Litchfield County, he added, is challenging.
Malone and Emons illustrate how employers in Connecticut, and around the country, are playing a game of chance when they vie for workers needing H-1B visas, which allow U.S. companies to hire foreign citizens for professional jobs.
In April of this year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services held a lottery for the first time because of the crush of requests it received for the annual allotment of 65,000 H-1B visas. The service received 119,000 petitions in the first two days of the application period, and so it stopped taking new applications, said Shawn Saucier, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The H-1B crunch - and the debate in Washington, D.C., over it - has been defined by giant software, hardware and information technology outsourcing companies, and computer-related industries continue to receive the largest number of visas each year.
But with professional workers in demand throughout the economy, the federal cap is hitting employers beyond Microsoft and Infosys Technologies, far from the computer-industry hotbeds. In Connecticut, large corporations, small businesses and even teacher-starved public school systems are struggling to get the visas they say they need for hard-to-find employees.
Accurate figures on H-1B visas by state are not available. It's clear they represent only a sliver of the 1.7 million jobs in Connecticut, so the problem isn't obvious across the state. But when a company can't hire a foreign worker it says it needs, the visa cap becomes a crisis.
"They are absolutely dismayed and flabbergasted," said Brenda Eckert, an immigration lawyer at Shipman & Goodwin in Hartford. "I am still having people calling me, and saying we still have a need for this kind of visa."
Unless the U.S. Congress raises the cap of 65,000 visas, employers that need H-1Bs will again have to take a chance in April in what's expected to be the second year of the lottery system at a time when professional employees are in high demand - especially in many technical fields.
Malone's company, Artificial Cell Technologies, grew from research done at Louisiana Tech University by co-founder Donald Haynie. Once the company secured venture capital investment, it needed two of Haynie's student researchers - Sujaykumar Bhad and Komal Dave - to join the company full time.
That meant securing H-1Bs in the April lottery. If Artificial Cell Technologies - which is developing biotech systems that can be used to make synthetic blood and other products - had been shut out, Malone said, it would have taken the company six months to a year to train researchers. The delay would have created a major problem for the small company, since limited venture funding leaves little room for delays.
"The whole program is a concern for us," said Malone, looking past his luck this year.
Some employers, anticipating the same problems next April, are now looking to join with universities in strategic partnerships to avoid the lottery, Eckert said. Higher education institutions, which are major users of H-1B visas, are exempt from the federal visa cap.
The Capitol Region Education Council, which runs Hartford's magnet schools, is in the midst of hiring a Cape Verde citizen to oversee an exchange program with the African island nation. Through a partnership with the University of Hartford, it avoided being shut out by the cap, said Jennifer Traks, a human resource specialist for the council.
"It was luck," she said of the relationship with the university. Without it, she added, "it would have been impossible."
Crucial, Or Just Cheaper?
To qualify for an H-1B, a foreign citizen under federal law has to have a bachelor's degree and work in a "specialty occupation." The visa allows a foreign citizen to work in the U.S. for a maximum of six years. Workers in that time can begin the permanent immigration process if sponsored by their employer, said Saucier, the spokesman for citizenship and immigration services.
To petition for an H-1B, an employer must first file an application with the U.S. Department of Labor, which requires it to make "good faith steps" to hire a U.S. worker.
Critics of the H-1B visas say the program allows companies to replace American workers with lower paid holders of H-1B visas, or with foreign employees of outsourcing firms that also receive the visas. Lobbying efforts by IT corporations have created an impression in Washington, D.C., that there is a shortage of trained U.S. workers, when in fact there are plenty, said Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California-Davis, who has studied the use of H-1B visas by American corporations.
"It is not about a lack of bodies. It is about desire for cheap labor," he said.
Matloff said the visas drive down wages for U.S.-born workers and push U.S. citizens away from applying or training for certain jobs because they're dominated by foreign workers.
Four years ago, the cap for the visas dropped from 195,000 - a number that exceeded the applications - to the current level of 65,000, after the federal legislation that expanded the number of H-1Bs expired. The latest efforts to address the cap were wrapped up in a major federal overhaul of immigration laws, which collapsed in Congress earlier this summer.
The visas became contentious in the early 2000s in Connecticut after businesses in Greater Hartford, including several insurance companies, laid off hundreds of IT workers. Some angry employees blamed H-1B visa holders and IT outsourcing firms for the job cuts.
But supporters of H-1B visas say that, to remain competitive, the country needs high-skilled workers and that the current cap is hampering that. Their argument is the United States should be importing the most talented to people to build up the economy and promote innovation.
"The choice is not between American workers and foreign workers. The choice is between a foreigner and no one in a lot of these cases," said David Zitzkat, a Hartford immigration lawyer whose clients seek visas most often for engineers.
For Emons, it is back to looking for U.S.-born doctors. The expense and frustration of not receiving an H-1B visa two years in a row has led to a reluctant change in strategy. He will go back to trying to lure a young doctor away from metro areas like New York and Boston to Torrington.
"It is difficult to get someone," Emons said. "The whole Northwest corner is dry, especially for internal medicine."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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