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Living in Limbo

The stunted lives of the foreign tech workers who power our half-trillion-dollar local economy.

 

Following Y.Y.’s lead, I slip off my shoes as I enter his place, scooting them over next to his. The haphazard lineup of footwear in the entryway is the only disorderly element in his very tidy apartment—in fact, not much other than the shoes seems to belong to Y.Y. The impression is of a well-appointed, high-end, but sterile hotel suite: stainless steel appliances, dark mahogany furniture, a large flat-screen television. Aside from Y.Y.’s video game console, the framed photo of his family in China, and his immigration documents, the apartment next door may well be identical.

We sit down at the dining table, where Y.Y. has set up his desktop computer—one of the few personal items he has unpacked since his move to the Bay Area less than a month ago. Like so many Silicon Valley geeks, he started tinkering with computers as a teenager, about 15 years ago—but in Hangzhou, China, where he grew up as the only child of an assembly-line worker and a driver for a local business. The family’s first computer cost about three months’ worth of his parents’ combined salaries, and Y.Y. promptly broke it by overloading it with games and other software. That’s how he started on the path to becoming an engineer. “My dad was pretty mad at me,” he says, smiling at the memory. “But I learned how to fix it, and I found it really rewarding, because now I knew how it worked.”

That path has taken him to this apartment in San Jose, a short-term perk of his new job at a Silicon Valley tech company. Y.Y., who asked to be identified by his initials to protect his employment, is one of thousands of foreign-born engineers hired by Bay Area tech companies each year to stoke our $535 billion local economy. There’s just one hitch: His status here, like his corporate apartment, is temporary.

Hired on an H-1B visa, which allows an American company to temporarily employ a foreign worker in a specialty occupation, Y.Y. is on the front lines of a vicious immigration battle: The tech industry, claiming that it cannot fill jobs, is lobbying to hire more engineers on H-1B visas. Opponents argue that the industry’s true objective is to reduce labor costs. Glossed over in the debate are the foreign tech workers themselves, mostly from India and China. For those hoping to make a life here in the United States, their future hangs on keeping their job—sometimes for many years—while they await review of their application for permanent status. Their uncertain future dogs them every day; some become so weary of the ongoing limbo that despite their years of training and (often) education here, they contemplate leaving the United States. How that tug-of-war plays out could shape Silicon Valley's future as the world's center of innovation. Should it be easier for Y.Y. to build his life here, given that we’ve already invested so much in him? Or should Silicon Valley have hired a local in the first place?

 

Now 30 years old, Y.Y. left home nearly a decade ago, following his graduation from one of China’s most prestigious universities. Like many middle-class Chinese students, he was drawn to the West, which he saw as the center of global commerce and technology. A scholarship steered him to a Canadian university, where he shivered through his first subzero winter while earning a master’s degree in computer science. Eventually he was recruited by a Seattle tech company that sponsored him for an H-1B visa, which allowed him to live and work in the United States for three years at a time. But changes at his workplace left him dissatisfied, so when he was approached by another recruiter last year, he switched jobs and moved to the Bay Area.

Among United States metro areas, the Bay Area’s population of workers on H-1B visas is second only to New York’s. Tech companies claim that meeting their needs with American engineers is an impossibility. About two years ago, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg drummed up millions of dollars from Silicon Valley’s biggest names to launch FWD.us, a group that has lobbied—unsuccessfully so far—to raise the number of H-1B visas allocated annually by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The agency awards 85,000 H-1B visas each year during its April lottery; this year, nearly 233,000 applied.

Getting a visa is a crapshoot, and that shouldn’t be the case, says FWD.us acting president Todd Schulte. “We want the best and brightest in the country. It’s a huge, huge drain on the economy that we’re not fixing the immigration system.”

Yet others worry that an influx of foreign workers will simply lead to the explotation of that many more people. Because H-1B visa holders cannot remain in the United States without an employer sponsor, they are disincentivized to quit or change their jobs, benefiting firms that don’t want to lose staff mid-project. They’re also deprived of the leverage to negotiate a higher wage—thereby keeping salaries down.

Outsourcing firms, which in 2012 received more than half of the available H-1B visas, have been singled out for underpaying their employees. But those firms—including Cognizant, Infosys, and Tata—are not alone in taking advantage of immigrant employees, says UC Davis computer science professor Norman Matloff. “The abuse pervades the entire industry.”

At his new job in Silicon Valley, Y.Y. feels like part of the team but is constantly aware of the precariousness of his position. He expects to receive a green card within three-plus years—if his work circumstances don’t change in the meantime. Luckily, he has already made it over a challenging hurdle: When it hires a foreign worker, an employer must prove that it can’t find a qualified U.S. candidate for the position, a “painstaking” effort, says attorney Stephanie

Smith of San Francisco’s business immigration law firm Weaver Schlenger Mazel. Until that’s settled, the H-1B worker can’t leave his job without first finding another employer willing to start the process over again. Y.Y. cleared that obstacle in 2013, but is still contending with the next one: the logjam of green card applicants from China. In May, the U.S. government was still processing applications filed in 2012. India’s application bottleneck is even worse, stuck back in 2008.

 

Like Y.Y., William left China to pursue graduate studies in computer science. After he completed his degree on the East Coast, the siren call of the high-tech promised land pulled him westward—with no job in the offing. Four months, nearly 300 résumés, and 20 interviews later, the reserved, soft-spoken engineer was hired by a major Silicon Valley software company.

I meet William, 29, in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he commutes each Saturday for lessons on the guqin, a classical Chinese instrument resembling a long wooden tabletop harp. He didn’t have the opportunity to study it while growing up in China—now, funded by a generous tech salary, he does. In a small studio more than 6,000 miles from home, surrounded by bamboo and Chinese calligraphy, he tentatively plucks the silk strings. “I’m a little nervous,” he says, smiling sheepishly when he stumbles.

Between 2001 and 2012, the tally of international students at U.S. colleges grew from 110,000 to 524,000. But despite significant American investment in their education, little is being done to keep them here. William, who was one of these international students, has extended his student visa, allowing him to remain in the Bay Area while he applies for an H-1B visa. If he doesn’t win one before his extension runs out, he must return to China.

For now, he is giving life as a Silicon Valley tech worker a try. He rents a room in a suburban three-bedroom house in San Jose shared with other Chinese engineers and spends his free time with immigrant friends. He streams The Big Bang Theory with Chinese subtitles. He uses the free gym at his office and partakes of the all-you-can-eat snacks. Last fall, he bought a used car; a friend taught him to drive.

The Bay Area offers clusters of Chinese immigrant communities with strip malls, grocery stores, and restaurants, but William misses the constant busyness of Beijing, where he attended college. Born of China’s one-child policy, he talks with his parents every day via WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging service. When asked what is hardest about his life here, he has a one-word answer. “Loneliness.”

 

In their pursuit of expanded immigrant quotas, tech companies describe themselves as so desperate for qualified engineers that they must resort to poaching candidates from competitors. But that claim was undermined by a recent class action lawsuit against Apple, Google, and others, which charged them with attempting to reduce wages by colluding to keep their hands off each other’s employees. The $415 million settlement, which was granted preliminary approval in March, is to be split 64,000 ways. But whether the engineer shortage is real or not remains an open question. “We don’t know if they can’t find the [American] workers,” says Ron Hira, a professor of public policy at Howard University. “We have to take their word for it.”

What is certain is that Silicon Valley companies have a healthy appetite for H-1B hires. Google, for instance, sponsored nearly 1,500 H-1B workers between 2010 and 2012, according to an analysis by Hira, at an average salary of $114,675. Facebook sponsored almost 500 H-1B workers, paying them an average of $111,716. And Intel sponsored more than 2,000 H-1B workers, paying them around $89,975. By law, H-1B workers must be paid the same wage as their U.S. colleagues, but critics say that employers can—and do—sidestep that rule.

It would be easy to assume that each time a foreign engineer is hired, an American engineer loses out—but that, says UC Davis economics professor Giovanni Peri, would be shortsighted. In a paper to be published later this year in the Journal of Labor Economics, he and his team examined metropolitan regions over the course of 20 years. They concluded that H-1B workers boosted regional productivity. Hiring foreign engineers helps businesses grow, says Peri, and that enables them to employ more Americans. “It is not a pie that you slice to pieces. It is a pie that is growing.”

Ultimately, Silicon Valley’s innovation engine owes much to its steady supply of new immigrants from around the globe. A Kauffman Foundation study coauthored by Vivek Wadhwa calculated that 43.9 percent of Silicon Valley startups, including Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Facebook, were founded by teams that included at least one immigrant.

Most immigrants, however, are not at liberty to drop everything and found a startup. Faced with years of uncertainty, some immigrant engineers are taking their U.S. education back home to build rival industries—potentially creating the Silicon Valleys of the future.

For Y.Y., the unknowns simply mean that he doesn’t plan too far ahead. Two months after our initial meeting, he moved out of his temporary apartment and into a one-bedroom San Jose rental. He picked up Ikea furniture, set up an entertainment system, and purchased a sofa bed for potential guests. It’s not home. But these days, he says, neither is China.

“My classmates are having a good life in Beijing,” he says. “Most of them have settled down and have families. For people like me, we’re still struggling with immigration stuff. At any time, if my employer decides to terminate my employment, I have to leave the country immediately. We are here making contributions to the economy, but we are treated like a resource that comes and goes.”

 

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

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