New York Times
By DEANNE FITZMAURICE and KATIE BENNER
April 19, 2017
At dawn in California’s Bay Area, the river of commuters begins to flow. It is filled with the people who help make our smartphones, our favorite games, the apps we download.
But many have also come to make something else, perhaps — a new life in America.
These are just a few of the 85,000 people who come to work at American companies from as far away as India and China on H-1B visas, which are granted to highly skilled workers from overseas. Many, like Kaushik Gopal, land jobs at technology firms that have struggled to find enough American citizens with advanced math and science skills to fill their cubicles.
Often, they hope to call the United States home.
“What I have loved about the U.S. is that it didn’t matter where you came from,” Mr Gopal said. Your past, your color or religion didn’t matter. If you did good work, there was a place for you here.”
President Trump’s plans to change the rules that govern work visas and immigration have thrown the lives of many visa holders into limbo.
“I’m always on guard because there is a chance that suddenly I’ll get the news that I’m no longer welcome,” said Mr. Gopal, 32, who first came to the United States in 2012.
Like many of Silicon Valley’s workers who are here as part of the H-1B visa program, which is aimed at highly skilled workers, Mr. Gopal was born in India, attended university in the United States and got a job at a tech company. He said the Bay Area attracts the smartest engineers from all over the world because it is known as “a magnet for technical skill.”
He is now at the delivery start-up Instacart, working on an app that customers in several cities use to order their groceries. His weekly podcast “Fragmented,” which he hosts with an app maker named Donn Felker, has raised his professional profile and netted him speaking spots at conferences as far away as Sweden.
While growing up in India, Mr. Gopal was a fan of American television shows and cartoons. After he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, he was excited to take his parents to Disneyland.
The high-tech industry is now deeply dependent on workers like Mr. Gopal: One in eight tech workers has an H-1B visa, according to estimates from Goldman Sachs.
H-1B visa holders account for about 15 percent of the American work forces at Facebook and Qualcomm, according to the most recent documents the companies have filed with the Labor Department. Silicon Valley start-ups, which often drive tech innovation, employ many engineers on student and work visas, as do tech giants like Google and Apple.
This has allowed an ethnically diverse population to flourish around the Bay Area. The Sikh Gurdwara Sahib temple in San Jose is one of the largest Sikh temples in North America. The 49-mile stretch of towns and cities from San Jose to San Francisco is filled with Asian eateries, like the popular Rajwadi Thali restaurant in Sunnyvale.
The sun setting over San Jose and the Sikh Gurdwara Sahib temple.
Crowds of people waiting for tables at Rajwadi Thali, a popular Indian restaurant in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Some visa holders, like Sujay Jaladi, have been in America for so long that they cannot imagine living elsewhere. Mr. Jaladi, 35, has lived here for 15 years, first on a student visa and then on a series of H-1B visas. He applied for a green card in 2012 and is waiting for the application to be approved. His wife, Priya, also holds an H-1B visa and works at a tech company.
“My family lives in India and I love that country,” said Mr. Jaladi, “but I have spent my adult life in the United States and it definitely feels like more of a home to me.”
Mr. Jaladi commutes an hour each day to work as the head of information security at Gusto, a company that provides human resources services to small businesses. He enjoys meals at home and weekend shopping trips to Costco. He and his wife love to cook.
But visas are always on his mind, along with the possibility that he may have to return to India.
“Our ability to stay in the U.S., with good standing, depends on the visa process,” he said. “Working hard is just one factor. If the financial markets are hit and your job lays people off, H-1B visa holders have a limited time to find another job and get into good standing before we have to leave the country. If the market is down and jobs numbers are low, there will be more H-1Bs in the market looking for jobs.”
Mr. Jaladi isn’t the only one who has found himself in immigration limbo at Gusto. Shub Jain, a 26-year-old software engineer there, graduated from the University of California, San Diego, in 2014, worked at Microsoft and last fall moved to San Francisco for a job at the H.R. start-up. He has been working on an extended student visa and has lost out on the H-1B visa lottery three times. This is the last year he will be eligible to apply. “If it doesn’t work out,” he said, “I’ll leave the country.”
Mr. Jain’s life is like that of many 20-something professionals. He loves cars and driving around California, as well as exploring new restaurants with friends. But the feeling of welcome he has always experienced in the United States has shifted as politicians have changed their views on immigration.
“My conversations with friends have changed,” he said. “I used to look at the news every morning, but now I don’t because I don’t want it to impact my work. I look at night. You don’t know what you’ll read.”
Like many tech employees, Mr. Jain took a gamble on a smaller start-up. But his decision came with extra risk. At Microsoft, he could deal with visa issues by relocating to one of the company’s many global offices. He does not have that option at Gusto.
Mr. Jain talks about his anxieties with teammates like Nicholas Gervasi, 32, a Canadian who is working at Gusto on an H-1B visa. Thanks to provisions under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Gervasi has had an easier time living and working in the United States than his colleagues from India, and he expects his green card application to be approved soon.
Mr. Jain’s sister attended the University of Illinois, worked on a trading floor in Chicago and left the country after she was unable to get an H-1B visa. She has since started her own company and talks to Mr. Jain almost every day as he prepares himself for the possibility that he will have to leave.
Because of his uncertain situation, Mr. Jain’s best friend from college recently visited for a month to play video games, go on drives and spend as much time together as they could.
Some critics of the H-1B visa program say there are more than enough Americans with technology degrees to fill all the technical jobs in the United States. Others say that Silicon Valley companies do not cast a wide enough net for American job candidates. But tech executives have long said that there are not enough Americans with the advanced math and science skills necessary to succeed at their companies.
Mr. Gervasi said that companies “should be empowered to hire the best people.” Joshua Reeves, the chief executive and founder of Gusto, agreed, noting that 8 percent of his work force is on a visa or green card. Gusto’s hiring policy has never taken a candidate’s citizenship into account, and Mr. Reeves said the company was “committed to sticking to that mind-set.”
That commitment could be tested over the next few years, given that the White House is continuously looking for ways to curb immigration as it seeks to enact America-first policies.
“It’s almost like living under this — maybe not fear — but a worry about what’s next and what will happen,” Mr. Jain said. “This feeling of being unwelcome in the country. I hadn’t really felt that before.”
Vindu Goel contributed reporting.
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