© 2024 Ideastream Public Media

1375 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, Ohio 44115
(216) 916-6100 | (877) 399-3307

WKSU is a public media service licensed to Kent State University and operated by Ideastream Public Media.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

H-1B Visa Debate: Are Foreign Tech Workers Hired Over Americans?


Now to the ongoing debate over immigration in this country, specifically the H-1B visa. These are the visas that tech companies use to hire foreign workers. And here's the thing with these - on the one side, you've got the companies that insist there's a talent shortage so they need to hire abroad. But on the other side, some Americans insist they're losing jobs to H-1B workers.

Reporter Asma Khalid from WBUR in Boston looked into this. And she said how you think about H-1B visas depends on who you talk to and where you live.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: There's a neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., known as Kendall Square. It's thought to be one of the most innovative hubs in the country, home to tech companies, biotech firms and big pharma. And that's where I meet Shoeb Mogal. He takes off his giant, noise-canceling headphones as we pop into a cafe.

SHOEB MOGAL: I'm from India originally. I came here in 2010.

KHALID: When Mogal was a kid back in India, he got addicted to computers.

MOGAL: I always liked the idea of developing games. I liked developing websites.

KHALID: So Mogal came to Boston for a master's in computer science. And when he graduated, he was in demand.

MOGAL: At that point, in a week, I was getting, like, 20 interviews.

KHALID: Twenty interviews. Within two weeks, Mogal had three job offers. He now works as a software engineer making over six figures.

MOGAL: Most of the companies - they struggle having good talent, especially on this coast because people tend to move to California.

KHALID: And so they hire foreigners. Mogal told me he can easily think of over a hundred friends on H-1B visas hired by local companies. He says this debate isn't about immigration. It's about the job market, and that's the same argument you hear from high-tech CEOs.

JACK LITTLE: There's always been a shortage in the full history of the company's existence. It's always been harder to find talented programmers and to hire engineers.

KHALID: That's Jack Little, the co-founder and president of MathWorks, a computing software company near Boston. And, a disclosure, MathWorks is a sponsor of some NPR programming. In Massachusetts, MathWorks is near the top of the list when it comes to companies pursuing H-1B workers. But nationally, some of the biggest beneficiaries are not high-tech firms - they're outsourcing companies. They essentially hire entry-level IT workers and import them from India to do the jobs Americans are already doing but purportedly for a cheaper price.

CRAIG DIANGELO: I had never heard of the H-1B program.

KHALID: I meet Craig Diangelo at his home in New Britain, Conn., an old industrial city. Diangelo is a straight talker, a slim guy with whitish hair.

DIANGELO: I worked for Northeast Utilities for 11 years, 11 great years.

KHALID: Northeast Utilities is now Eversource, an electric and gas company. Diangelo used to bring in $130,000 a year working in the IT department. But in 2014, he was let go, replaced by someone from Infosys - that's one of those Indian outsourcing companies. Infosys declined a comment for this story, but Diangelo says he had to train his replacement or risk losing his severance.

DIANGELO: The individual that came over from India - he would shadow me for the day, and I would show him what I was doing. He sat next to me the whole time. He had a chair in my cubicle.

KHALID: In total, nearly 200 IT workers lost their jobs at the company. Diangelo found a new IT gig making less money, but he considers himself lucky. He sits near the fireplace in his living room and sips a glass of wine as he tells me some of his friends weren't so lucky.

DIANGELO: One of my co-workers is working at a supermarket. Another one of my co-workers was working as a part-time secretary at a church three days a week, making a little more than minimum wage.

KHALID: Diangelo says there's no sign of a tech shortage here in Connecticut. He voted for Donald Trump, and he's optimistic the Trump administration will reform the H-1B program, though any major changes would have to come through Congress.

But back in Cambridge, it's not optimism. It's apprehension for Shoeb Mogal.

MOGAL: Before coming here, if I knew that, you know, it was a political issue, I wouldn't have dared to, like, you know, apply for it. I mean, it's my career, and, you know, I don't want it to be based on fluctuations in a country that I do not belong to.

KHALID: And ultimately, Mogal says, if he doesn't feel welcome, he'll go back to India. He's not worried about a job because, he says, if companies cannot find workers in the United States, they'll find them somewhere else. For NPR News, I'm Asma Khalid.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOSAJ THING'S "SAFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.