H-1B workers wary of terrorist backlash

Across the nation, workers from Central and South Asia are expressing concerns about discrimination, and some are worried about a broader backlash against foreign professionals.

7 min read
Two days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, QuadraMed Chief Executive Larry English sent a stern e-mail to all 1,100 workers: He would not tolerate prejudice toward the company's foreign employees.

"We wanted everyone to know that we wouldn't put up with any mindset that was against people from foreign countries, especially any country implicated in the terrorist events," said Katie Wargnier, vice president of human resources for the San Rafael, Calif.-based software developer. "We had one worker from Pakistan, and I'm sure it reassured him."

The eight workers with H-1B visas sponsored by QuadraMed have yet to report any incident of alleged racial or ethnic bigotry, but Wargnier said the human resources department would remain on alert.

QuadraMed is not the only company watching for such occurrences. Across the nation, H-1B visa workers from Central and South Asia are expressing concerns about discrimination, and some are worried about a broader backlash against foreign professionals.

Their fears intensified in late September, when officials from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detained dozens of foreigners working at Washington's Dulles International Airport. According to a report in The Washington Post, which has been widely circulated in anti-immigration chat groups, one detained worker was a Lebanese immigrant working as a security guard on an H-1B visa. He was charged with switching employers without informing the INS.

Ultimately, H-1B workers say, the terrorist attacks could mean restrictions on the number of foreigners who can work on American soil--and possibly new requirements to file more papers with government agencies and pass stricter security clearances. That could hamper hiring in the technology sector, which actively lobbied the U.S. government in the late 1990s to increase the H-1B visa worker cap to fill hundreds of thousands of computer programming and engineering positions.

Cyrus Mehta, immigration attorney, discusses how immigration law has changed since September 11. (5:31)

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The backlash has already hit Congress. On Oct. 4, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., introduced a bill that would require all foreigners entering the country on a visa to go through a biometric inspection aimed at identifying suspected terrorists.

The provision would have required that an estimated 500,000 H-1B visa holders in the United States pass biometric tests and keep their iris scans or fingerprints in a government database. The bill also would have required employers who terminate an H-1B worker to notify the government within 14 days and provide a reason for the termination.

Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, joined Bond in co-sponsoring the "Visa Integrity and Security Act." Although none of the 19 suspected perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington were H-1B visa holders (most entered on tourist or student visas), the original proposal didn't distinguish between students, tourists and foreigners with corporate sponsorship.

"This nation has now seen the terrible dangers associated with failing to enforce visa deadlines," Bond said in introducing the bill. "We have a duty to make this country safer for Americans and legal foreign visitors who follow the rules."

The Senate adopted about 80 percent of Bond's bill in its final counter-terrorism bill. But it rejected the section regarding H-1B workers, partly because it would be difficult to implement. Bond spokesman Ernest Blazar said Tuesday that the senator might push the issue next year.

Lobbying for limits
Other H-1B critics are already working to gather support in Washington for a crackdown.

Gene A. Nelson, a scientist and longtime H-1B foe who argued against the policy throughout the 1990s at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recently returned to Dallas from a lobbying mission in the capital. He said he and other H-1B critics talked to staff members of at least 20 congressmen, as well as members of the FBI and INS. They propose reducing the 195,000 cap on the number of H-1B workers allowed into the United States each year and requiring employers to pay $5,000 per year per H-1B worker--money that would go to the FBI and INS to improve security checks on all visa holders.

Nelson, who was laid off in August from Internet infrastructure services company Genuity, once argued against the importation of skilled foreigners largely for economic reasons. Now he and other H-1B critics are bolstering their economic argument by highlighting what they believe are the program's national security risks and potential for intellectual property theft. He presented papers to government agencies alleging links between at least eight H-1B workers and suspected terrorist organizations--proof, he said, that the H-1B screening procedure is not rigorous.

"I'd hope that these programs would be substantially reduced and reformed because they're causing incredible harm," Nelson said of skilled foreign worker immigration programs. "If your own work force is not employed in science and technology fields, that's an important national security risk...These programs could also be fronts for terrorist programs because they have virtually zero oversight. It's a wonderful conduit for bringing people into the country we have not vetted."

Suspicion from Nelson and others is not necessarily cause for a wholesale revamping of the program, H-1B advocates say. Relatively few workers come from countries known to harbor suspected terrorists: According to the 1999 INS Statistical Yearbook, the most recent published, only two approved H-1B visa workers were from Afghanistan. Nine were from the United Arab Emirates and 121 from Saudi Arabia. India had the most of any country with 85,012, while Pakistan had 3,964.

Many H-1B visa holders say they're not concerned about a broader crackdown--despite an acknowledgment that some Americans will use the attacks to fuel prejudice.

"Low educated people...think any Asian must be Muslim, (and) in turn must be a supporter of (Osama) bin Laden," said Vladimir Gasic, president of Phoenix-based Apex Software. "A Sikh was recently shot to death here...The person died only because he wore a turban."

Gasic referred to a Sept. 16 incident in Mesa, Ariz., where a gunman fatally shot the Indian owner of a Chevron gas station. Police say the attack was a hate crime against the owner, who was a member of the Sikh faith and wore a turban similar to those worn by Muslim men. (Sikhs are usually from northern India, and they believe in a monotheistic religion based on Hindu and Islamic doctrines.) Police charged a local man with one count of first-degree murder--as well as two counts of attempted murder for firing at workers of Lebanese and Afghan descent at a nearby gas station and home.

Although some immigrants have shrugged off the backlash as ignorance, others are more concerned. More than 200 Sikhs have reported incidents to Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART) since Sept. 11. The civil rights advocacy group recently published a bulletin on its site, warning members to be on alert.

"Blind anti-Muslim sentiment is running high throughout the nation. Since many Americans commonly mistake Sikhs for followers of Islam, or associate (them) with Osama bin Laden, there is a heightened potential for violent attacks directed against members of the Sikh community," according to the site.

Interpreting subtle signs
Many H-1B workers say they haven't been assaulted or harassed, but they have detected more distrustful glances and worried questions about their ethnic origin since the attacks. If they've been the targets of prejudice, they say, it's been in relatively subtle forms.

"I do acknowledge that there can be a thread of suspicion running on everybody's mind these days," said Abhijeet Khadilkar, senior technology consultant with Deloitte Consulting and founder of H1bopenings.com, a site that helps H-1B tech workers connect with employers. "But that being said, I think the American people have shown tremendous respect for diversity and ethnicity."

Some H-1B workers say they're still in shock and grieving because of the attacks--no different than U.S. citizens who share their offices and neighborhoods. They say they're confident Americans won't cast a blanket judgment against all foreigners.

"Yes, there is a worry that there might be a crackdown on immigrants, but America has shown herself to be above knee-jerk reactions and (to) demonstrate such strength and patience," said Ashwin Ramaswamy, a senior consultant at Silverline Technologies in Charlotte, N.C. "Even in the face of such severe provocation, that makes one glad to be in America. So the worry is a residual worry, which is fueled by some unfriendly stares in public places sometimes, especially immediately after the attacks."

Ramaswamy, who lost a friend in one of the hijacked planes Sept. 11, said he and other H-1B holders grieve with their American colleagues. Many H-1B workers from the Middle East and parts of Central Asia applied for positions in the United States precisely to escape terrorism in their own countries--so in some ways the atrocities resonate more profoundly with them, they say.

"Now the country is hurting, and visa status apart, and color of skin apart, we hurt, too," Ramaswamy said. "No matter how much one sees terrorism on a daily basis in one's country of origin, death is a misery that is hard to get used to."