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Immigration Lawyer Outlines Complex Debate Over H-1B Visa Program


Well, joining us now is Ann Cun, who's an immigration lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area who helps tech companies bring over foreign employees on the H-1B visa program. Welcome to the program.

ANN CUN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Just to clarify first, your clients are not consulting firms like the one we just heard about. These are actually tech employers?

CUN: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Why then are they using the H-1B visa program?

CUN: Well, when you traditionally look at competition in the Bay Area, it has attracted a lot of technology-based companies. And they're looking for candidates who come from either a master's degree or even a doctoral degree, but with specific skill sets in computer science, in robotics, in a lot of the high-skilled areas.

SIEGEL: But is it that your clients cannot find any American-trained engineers to do those jobs or scientists to do those jobs, or that the Americans would cost them more money to employ?

CUN: It's actually neither. I think there is a presumption in the questioning and the perception out there that technology companies are hiring only foreign workers. And it's not a zero sum game I think to the extent that when their recruiters are out there looking for candidates, they're looking to see do these candidates have the degrees we need? And they're hiring U.S. workers certainly, but you don't see big headlines that say U.S. worker being hired by U.S. company.

SIEGEL: But when one of your clients asks for an H-1B visa to bring somebody in who's not an American citizen or doesn't have a green card, is that because there is no one else who could be found who could do that job in this country, or that the other person here might demand more money?

CUN: From my point of view in my practice, I've observed that salaries are part of an initial budget that the company may have. And it's also part of the negotiating process that the candidate brings in during the discussion.

SIEGEL: One criticism of the H-1B visa program - it's a criticism against guest worker programs - is that they limit the visa holder to working for one employer. So the employee has no bargaining power over pay or promotions, unlike an American who would be free to go work for someone else. Is that a fair criticism?

CUN: I would say initially not necessarily. When you're in a very competitive market and you're negotiating with a particular employer, you have the upper hand to negotiate a compensation package that is consistent with the industry and consistent with your peers. Now, on the other hand, if you're tied to one employer long term for X number of years and you're relying on that employer to continue to sponsor you for a visa, I could see over a long term period that power of negotiating can diminish over time.

SIEGEL: Just to be clear, in the story that we just heard, the workers who were being trained and then sent back to India are from what I could gather doing fairly routine IT work for the utility. Is it easy for clients to get people H-1B visas to come and stay here in the U.S. to do that kind of work?

CUN: Well, it's a tough question because the question about ease, is it - procedurally is it possible? Sure, absolutely. But is this the norm in the industry? Certainly there are companies whose business models rely on that particular type of hiring and performing those types of jobs, but the majority of the companies whom I've interacted with have been dedicated to very high-skilled individuals who come in who are building the machines that will ultimately operate your computer, your cell phone. That certainly goes above and beyond the basic IT individual coming to fix your computer.

SIEGEL: We've been talking with Ann Cun, immigration lawyer from near Oakland, Calif. about H-1B visas. Thanks for talking with us.

CUN: Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: And we should acknowledge NPR has a small number of H-1B workers. Last year it filed for three applications for H-1B visas with the U.S. Department of Labor.

(SOUNDBITE OF STROBO SONG, "MAMAE QUERO SER POP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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