After years of waiting for a green card while working under the H-1B visa system, Rishi Misra finally became a United States resident in April 2016. (Courtesy photo)

H-1B visa: A policy of constrainment

Many immigrants have a story behind their longing for America, and most stories are about escape or opportunity. San Francisco resident Rishi Misra’s story is about awe and perhaps a bit of shock.

Misra’s father was the captain of a U.S. oil tanker, owned by Mobil. Since Saddam Hussein had cultivated quite a reputation for attacking commercial trading ships moving in the region, Mobil had requested the U.S. government provide their ships with protective escort during the first Gulf War. Two U.S. warships arrived to escort Misra’s father’s oil tanker through the Suez Canal. This story became legend in Misra’s mind, who was a young child at the time. The idea that America kept his father safe gave birth to the swell of awe he felt for America.

That awe, though, has been hard to sustain over the years.

In 1997, Misra left India and followed the migratory patterns of thousands before him. He arrived in America to pursue the much-vaunted goal of an American education. He was 18 at the time. He graduated with undergraduate degrees in physics and biomedical engineering and a graduate degree in business administration.

That’s when he came face to face with the limits of the U.S. immigration system.

The H-1B system has a separate quota for applicants with master’s degrees and, through his employer at the time, Deloitte, Misra acquired an H-1B visa to live, work and pay taxes in the United States. Misra is an ideal candidate for the H-1B, and it is fortuitous that he managed to get one of those coveted lottery-assigned visas.

While at Deloitte, he worked on modernizing inpatient care for a healthcare delivery system in California. Initially, it was thrilling and challenging, but after three years at the same job, Misra wanted more.

“I felt like I was capable of solving more complex problems,” he recalled, “but wasn’t given the opportunities to do so.”

But he stuck on. Deloitte had started his green card process, but after a few years of waiting and not getting a “number” for the green card queue, Misra decided he had nothing to lose and left Deloitte.

“It was more complicated than that,” he later assured me, indicating they had mutually decided to part ways.

In my conversation with Misra, he was careful to say that while there’s really no evidence that Deloitte held him back by deliberately dragging its feet on his green card process, it is true and often the case that “employers intentionally or through negligence keep employees on an H-1B for lengthy periods.” It works to their advantage. They can control attrition by pinning down valuable employees.

The H-1B should be a pathway for the green card, especially and particularly, for high-performing candidates, and it seems as though Misra’s contributions did not add to the considerations.

After Deloitte, he worked as a contractor for Kaiser for awhile, but they were unable to sponsor his green card application because he was not a regular employee. Misra caught a break in January 2010, when he was offered a position at One Medical, where the paperwork for his green card was launched immediately.

“I got a number in the green card line within just eight months,” Misra said, supporting the implication of Deloitte’s prevarication in Misra’s case.

It was too soon to celebrate. He continued to wait for a green card, while he helped build One Medical into a leading health care solutions company. On Dec. 29, 2015, Mirsa finally gave up on the green card queue and decided to apply for residency under the extraordinary ability or EB-1 merit category.

In April 2016, he received approval for his visa. It was a 19-year nerve-wracking journey from student to resident. The fact that he was such an instant fit for the “extraordinary ability” category goes to show how nondiscerning the H-1B and green card systems are.

H-1B and green card applicants are held hostage by a system that cannot and does not account for passion, ambition, merit or risk-taking. Misra was lumped into the same category as countless others who are mere transitory workers with less-refined skill sets.

These are policies of constrainment. As Misra puts it, “There’s no job portability, no room for career growth. Promotions cannot be accepted easily, which could have an impact on innovation.”

And what of entrepreneurs? It’s a struggle for foreign nationals on H-1Bs who want to start businesses and create jobs.

“This is partly because outsourcing companies take up most of the H-1Bs and partly because the requirements are tough,” said Misra.

The salary floor being one of those tough requirements. The generally effective “bootstrapping startup” format is not an option. If an
entrepreneur must pay himself or herself a certain base salary, then it will be difficult to create equity, making it tough for immigrant entrepreneurs to start companies, explained Misra.

President Donald Trump recently suspended the fast-tracking of H-1B visas for the next six months. This was to cut down H-1B processing times. However, this is a case of treating the symptom instead of the cause. It is only if we manage the behavior of outsourcing companies who game the system and implement a “merit-based” approach will we be able to positively impact American jobs and American innovation.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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