Maneuvering The System That Is The H-1B Visa Program

Much of the focus on the immigration overhaul bill has been on what to do about the millions of people working illegally in the U.S. But things might change for a smaller subset of immigrant workers. The bill proposes doubling the number of skilled worker visas available to companies that want to hire foreign workers.

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Let's say you're highly skilled and interested in emigrating to the United States. Well, there are reasons to think you have a pretty good shot. Those with a specialty that's rare and highly valued can take advantage of what's called the H-1B visa. It is specifically for people with a Bachelor's degree or higher and you can only get one if an American company explicitly wants to hire you.

But as NPR's Zoe Chace reports, even when an employer wants to bring you to the U.S., there remains a pretty big hurdle to clear. It's found inside a massive office building in a very unlikely location.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: Yifan Zhang runs a company called GymPact - an exercise motivator. You sign up and if you work out, you get money; if you don't, you pay money. And here's the ingenious part of it.

YIFAN ZHANG: Our users will earn cash rewards for meeting their workout pacts. And it's paid for by the people who didn't work out. We'll actually transfer money from the non-exercisers to the exercisers.

CHACE: It's growing quickly and Zhang wants to hire this developer to come over from India. She's been working with him abroad for a year. Recently they hired an immigration lawyer and put together an application for this special visa, to bring Paddy - that's the developer - to America. He fits the profile. It's definitely a special skill. And you can only do so much remotely. They want to promote this guy to a leadership position and hire people to work under him. He's critical.

ZHANG: He develops all the Web technology for our applications.

CHACE: And so, a lot's riding on what happens with his visa. So what is happening? I went to find out. To get to the room where they're likely deciding the fate of Paddy's application, you have to go pretty far north, 45 minutes past Burlington, Vermont to a town called St. Albans.

It's practically Canada, even on the radio.

NAVIGATIONAL VOICE: Arriving at address 75, on right.

CHACE: And this is it. I'm led into a room thick with temp workers in cubicles and file folders.

Crates of folders. Boxes of folders, shelves - it looks like a law school library on the day before exams, packed and a busy. I ask an immigration officer about Paddy's application.

It's a small startup and this guy's name is Paddy. Maybe he's in here somewhere.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So, this isn't a startup. It's a software development company.

CHACE: We never found him. I sat down though, with one of the people who might decide his fate, an adjudication officer is what she's called. Immigration insisted that I not use her name so I'll call her The Decider. And she explains how it works here. What criteria they're using to decide if he can come. And a lot of it, comes down to how precisely Paddy's lawyer filled out his paperwork.

The Decider has a big book of all existing jobs, from the Labor Department. Its name?

THE DECIDER: "The Occupational Outlook Handbook."

CHACE: If the job your employer is trying to bring you in on doesn't appear in the handbook, that could be trouble. The Decider pulls up the paperwork of an immigrant who's trying to get work as an actuary. She flips to the actuary section out of the handbook.

DECIDER: There's a photo of someone sitting at a desk, a computer desk, in a cubicle. And this very nicely lists out the training that's qualified. And usually the duties are what they actually do.

CHACE: But the job description in the application can't match the handbook too precisely.

Couldn't they just go to the Department of Labor book and copy and paste it into here?

DECIDER: They could. But we would want to see something a little bit more detailed than just what appears in the Department of Labors.

CHACE: Have you ever seen that?

DECIDER: Yes.

CHACE: And you've flagged it?

DECIDER: Yes.

CHACE: Other things they look at, the salary range has to be what's in the book. They need evidence of the degree, of course. And a transcript, even.

DECIDER: We may look at the grades, particularly if she failed some of the courses that might be required for the job - that could be a little bit of a concern, but...

CHACE: She's got mostly A's.

DECIDER: She's an A-student, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DECIDER: She's a very good student.

The decider points out her A-plus in actuarial mathematics.

CHACE: This application ends up being approved.

In a few short days, Paddy - our guy with the Gym payout app - will know if he made the cut. But here's why a lot of people don't like this system. A lot of potential immigrants, no one ever looks at their application. The people in this room are the lucky ones, they got their applications in under the quota. And a lot of experts say A-plus actuarial students, entrepreneurial Web developers, we should have more of those people in the country, there shouldn't be a quota.

But if you send an application to this office now, after the quota for the year has already been reached, they'll send it back to you unopened - tell you to wait till next year.

Zoe Chase, NPR News.

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