Deciding to Come
For Mr. Sundar Natarajan, growing up in Tamil Nadu, India wasn’t bad, but it was no tech haven either. A computer engineer at a major Silicon Valley tech firm, he explicates the reasoning behind his immigration decision as he relaxes on a large, emerald green couch in his living room, “In my case, it was a happenstance; I could have been successful in my country also. The country was just coming up with the computer revolution, it just literally had started. I still proceeded to come here because this is the place of more advanced technologies, and my skillset was better used here and was most wanted here.” Like many tech workers in India in the 1990s, Sundar was drawn to the United States by the booming technology industry and the great demand for skilled computer engineers. And as many of these tech workers did, Sundar was able to immigrate to the United States under the federal government’s H-1B visa program, which was newly created under the Immigration Act of 1990. This program was created to allow U.S. employers to more easily hire foreign, skilled workers who were trained in highly specialized occupations, such as Sundar’s chosen occupation of Information Technology (Banerjee 2009).
Thanks to the H-1B visa program, out of more than two million people employed in America’s IT industry, over 350,000 are foreign-born, and most of the foreign-born workers were hired under that very program (Banerjee 2009). And among the immigrant IT workers of Indian origin, there is a high rate of economic and educational success. Sundar readily pointed out in our interview the large number of motels and hotels owned by Indian-Americans, which, while impressive, is not the only success of that community. Some of these many accomplishments include that over half of Indian Americans over 25 have a college degree, 43.6 percent of working Indian Americans are managers or professionals, almost 300,000 of them work in the tech field, and they own 15 percent of start-up firms in the Silicon Valley (Chaturvedi 2005).
Despite these incredible economic and educational successes for Indian-Americans, their opportunities for advancement and their treatment socially are very unequal with those of White Americans. Sundar characterizes his experience immigrating to the United States and living here since as having been very positive overall: “…I found the…work experiences more to my liking, and the opportunity to grow here was immense.” Sundar very clearly expresses that it was precisely the opportunity to advance here that drove his decision to immigrate, and that furthermore he did not and does not feel discriminated against in the United States (with issues surrounding vegetarianism and cultural differences in body language and nonverbal gestures being his only real adjustment issues which were long since overcome). Yet it appears that, in terms of broad, institutional U.S. treatment of Indian-Americans, Sundar is a rather fortunate exception. In a review of the conditions faced by H-1B visa workers in the United States, many American IT workers of Indian origin expressed concern that they were tied down to working for a small pool of sub-contracting firms which could afford them the legal status their visa required, and these firms decided what larger tech companies they’d be contracted out to (Banerjee 2006).
This contrasts with Sundar’s narrative, in which he explains that when he first came here, he could easily transfer his visa status to a different company as he wished, as jobs were plentiful in Sunnyvale (and the larger Silicon Valley area) when he arrived and his skills were in such high demand. Notwithstanding, Sundar readily admits the aims of using the H-1B visa program as a source of labor, noting that “…so that was an opportunity for cheaper labor. Cheaper labor means people on H1 visa, and they’re temporary too; after the job is done they are gone.” Furthermore, while Sundar may not have experienced issues having his visa transferred if he wished, research indicates that a major obstacle to many is that the H-1B visa is not legally held by the immigrant worker, but by the company they work for. Subsequently, this causes enormous disadvantages for H-1B workers in terms of wages and working conditions, in that “as much as 50 percent of the H-1B workers actual billed wage is disbursed in the process of commission accumulation” (Banerjee 2006). If that wasn’t bad enough, their salary AND immigration status is dependent on being assigned to a project, so the workers feel constant pressure to do more work than is normally required in order to keep their job and legal residency, which vastly reduces their ability to bargain (Banerjee 2006). Sundar was able to avoid some of these challenges because his visa was directly sponsored by the company who desired his labor, rather than through a sub-contracting firm. However, the nature of his work was still largely temporary until he was able to achieve “naturalized citizen” status.
Sundar’s partially attributes his success to being “…stereotyped in a good way; sometimes it helped me too because they said, you know, ‘Indian engineers are smart.’ So…for some time that helped me to open some opportunities.” Sundar is very prescient here, in that one researcher said that “…"Indian software programmer" became a kind of "brand name" indicating quality in the same way that "made in Japan" signals reliability in consumer products” (Chakravartty 2006). But Sundar’s experience is somewhat anomalous among Indian immigrants under the H-1B visa program, in that, “…many workers spoke of "social isolation" Indian H-1B workers often experienced…segregated both at their place of work and often where they lived…in shared, often crowded, accommodations in hotels, apartments or dormitories provided by the agency, sometimes at a steep cost to the workers themselves.” (Chakravartty 2006). It is thus evident that the path to more permanent employment in the U.S. is often quite perilous for such workers, and involves substandard living conditions (and not just working conditions) despite the high status and usually high wages of the IT field in which these workers seek their livelihood. What’s more, these workers often experience racial discrimination on the job, in terms of being pressured to work more hours than U.S. born Americans and being paid less than them (Chakravartty 2006). It follows that clearly, many U.S. IT workers of Indian origin have a quite different experience from Sundar, which he does acknowledge.
Mr. Sundar Natarajan’s immigration experience was one of temporary confusion and initial moving back and forth between India and the U.S. (combined with more transitory work), followed by a permanent residency and career along with naturalized citizenship and the successful establishment of a family. Sundar, quite pleased with his experiences in the United States, expresses effusively that, “I’m living better here compared to there…the definition of better changed here.”
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