NEW YORK, Jan. 4 - As the United States and other countries tightened security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, concern quickly spread in certain segments in biotech that heightened scrutiny would spread to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service.
These segments, chief among them bioinformatics, felt a particular pinch when many nationals they were recruiting from countries like India and China were forced to wait nearly twice as long as usual for the INS to decide their employment fate.
The slowdown can be tracked to the H-1B visa, the primary document that allows foreign-born scientists to work in the US temporarily and under narrow guidelines.
To be sure, the H-1B has always been a highly scrutinized visa. According to Mark D. Shevitz, vice president of Visanow.com, a firm that acts as a liaison between the INS and companies wishing to hire foreign nationals, the INS is concerned that approving these scientists to work in the US is tantamount to giving away jobs that ordinarily would have gone to Americans.
In fact, the number of applicants seeking H-1B visas and the number of those approved have increased significantly over the last year: Applications for H-1B visas were up 14 percent as of September 2001 compared with the whole of fiscal 2000, Shevitz says. (The US Government’s fiscal years end on Sept. 30 and begin on Oct. 1.) Furthermore, in fiscal 2001, 48 percent of all H-1B applications were approved compared with 38 percent in fiscal 2000, according to the INS.
“There is a deficit of these skilled workers in the United States. Companies really need them and the demand has remained steady,” Shevitz says, adding that as many as 77,000 new jobs were created in engineering and computer science, which includes bioinformatics, between November 2000 and November 2001.
“An H-1B visa is usually given to a degreed professional,” Shevitz went on. “We shouldn’t be surprised that so many come from India since [that country] is home to the India Institutes of Technology. The people who come to the United States through H-1B visas have skills.”
Getting an H-1B visa often is complicated and expensive. Applicants are required to furnish the INS with a host of documents and pay the agency $1,110 in fees. Waiting for a decision can take between four to eight weeks, sometimes longer, Shevitz explains. However, the agency offers a service that costs an extra $1,000 and ensures that a decision is delivered within 15 calendar days.
These fees are handed over to the US Department of Labor and to the National Science Foundation, which turns them into scholarships to promote math and science education at both the undergraduate and graduate levels in the US.
The events of Sept. 11 slowed down the process considerable, according to Shevitz.
In the weeks following the attacks, Shevitz says he said he saw many H-1B forms taking up to 100 days to make their way back to applicants. These days, though, the 60-day maximum waiting period has returned “somewhat to normal,” he says. “They say they try to hit the 60-day deadline, but then again the government also [says it] tries to balance their budget,” he says sarcastically.
The terrorist attacks were not the only reason behind the INS slowdown. The agency had to deal with a reorganization that sought to separate the visa-processing departments from the segment that ensures that foreigners working in the US leave when they are required. The INS also had an agency-wide self-audit, and last fall was forced to close a field office following an anthrax scare. According to Shevitz, these factors have conspired to set back H-1B visa processing by about a week.
Eyleen Schmidt, a spokesperson for the INS, stresses that despite these intra-agency speed bumps she hasn’t seen any delays in processing H-1B visas. “We still have our 60-day goal for getting visas through and for the most part we are reaching them,” she says. “We are dealing with our own changes within the agency, but there have been no policy changes towards reviewing individual H-1B applications.”
A political fly in the ointment?
One factor that may negatively affect bioinformatics companies seeking to hire foreign nationals is a bill being proposed in Congress by Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican. Tancredo’s bill would cut to 65,000 from 195,000 the number of foreign nationals permitted to work in the US. The US Government set the 195,000-person cap in fiscal 2001. The previous cap was 115,000.
Last year, only about 163,000 of 342,035 applicants were approved. The remaining forms were either denied, are still pending, or weren’t valid H-1B applications since their filers were on their way to the US to work for either a non-profit organization, the US Government, or for an institution of higher learning. In fiscal 2000, by comparison, the INS met its 115,000-person cap by March and held all other applications until October. But with the cap made higher in 2001 and more forms approved in the early part of the year, by the time September rolled around applications were down 50 percent, according to Shevitz.
Critics of liberal H-1B-visa caps, like Tancredo and other members of his Immigration Reform Caucus such as Reps. Johnny Isakson, Charlie Norwood, Nathan Deal, and Billy Barr, all Georgia Republicans, suggest that they encourage employers to hire skilled workers on the cheap and at the expense of US workers. “I am asking the [Bush] administration and any member of Congress to justify handing out jobs to foreign workers while Americans get pink slips,” Tancredo said while addressing Congress in November 2001.
Representatives Jerry Weller, a Republican from Illinois, and James Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, are two of the biggest backers of legislation aimed at keeping the H-1B visa cap high, if only temporarily. In May 2001 they suggested offering employers tax credits for employee training, a move they hoped would reverse the paucity of skilled US-bred staff.
In 2000 Rep. David Drier, a California Democrat, proposed a bill that would raise the caps on H-1B visas and defended it with a novel twist: He said his bill would benefit American workers who had been sidelined by obsolete jobs. “There are 300,000 jobs that need to be filled,” he said in October of that year. “The [technology] industry wants to make sure that we stay competitive globally. We either import workers or export jobs and industries.”