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January 24, 2000
Indian techies may sue INS
J M Shenoy
Many of the 40 Indian computer programmers, arrested last week by American immigration agents on the suspicion that they had violated their contracts, are contemplating law suits against the agency, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service is flatly denying it did anything wrong.
INS officials feel the two firms that brought most of these programmers to America skirted the law and violated H1-B visa agreements to place them in jobs that were not part of the agreement.
The techies, who have been released, believe their arrest was meant to discourage people coming to America under the H1-B, which last year allowed 115,000 foreigners -- a substantial number from India -- to work mostly in high-tech fields.
American labor unions and many liberal and conservative political leaders have opposed these visas. Senator Edward M Kennedy (Democrat, Massachusetts) complained that the American hi-tech industry wants foreign workers because they come at substantially reduced salaries.
Even the defenders of H1-B visas faulted the INS of not doing a thorough job in reducing visa violations.
Senator Phil Gramm and Representative Lamar Smith, both Texas Republicans who have supported raising the H1-B cap to 200,000 per year, were among the INS's critics.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, (R-Texas) has backed a $ 5 million boost for INS to ensure programs such as H1-B are not abused.
But the defenders of the H1-B visa category, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, want the quota to be increased. There are not just enough Americans to take up the sophisticated jobs in the computer industry, they say.
Many of the arrested high techies believe that an organized conspiracy exists against them, and that the INS fell a victim to such a conspiracy.
Meanwhile, the two Houston firms, Frontier Consulting Inc, and Softtech Consulting Inc, that secured jobs for the 40 at the Randolph Air Force Base in Austin, assert that they have broken no laws and charge the INS with acting in haste and without verifying the records properly. Indian Americans run both firms.
Many of the employees have been at the Randolph base for over four years and each has been earning over $ 50,000 a year, a big income in San Antonio. But many programmers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were indeed aware that American "kids" with fraction of the knowledge of Indian computer programmers were earning over $ 80,000 a year.
'In San Antonio, where per capita annual wages were last reported to be below $ 20,000,' columnist Carlos Guerra wrote in the San Antonio Express News, 'a salary of $ 50,000 may seem like a princely sum, but it is not much more than what a recent college graduate in a computer-related field with little or no experience, commands today.
"These men (Indian programmers) are doing a very respectable job," said Ramesh Cherivirala, a techie who knows many of the arrested programmers.
"What happened to them is an insult to the entire Indian community," he continued. "I would be surprised if Indian community groups do not come to their rescue and redeem their honor."
He said the men and women were handcuffed and led from their offices to INS detention centers.
"This has left a very bad feeling," he said. "Many computer programmers who were planning to come to America might think many times over what risks they could be facing here."
Joe De Mott, attorney for the Houston firms, told reporters that the INS "went about this thing the wrong way". He believes the workers, who were released from detention on Friday after having been held for nearly a day, did not have to be arrested.
If the INS thought there was a violation of a visa agreement, it could have sent letters to the firms, threatening to revoke the visas, he said. But INS officials bridled at the suggestion.
"If someone commits a crime in San Antonio, someone isn't going to call them up and say, 'We're going to arrest you,' " Thomas Homan, INS assistant district director of criminal investigations, told reporters on Friday.
"The immigration service is sending a message. We are not going to tolerate companies or individuals who knowingly violate immigration law."
He also said 13 programmers were released without charges being filed, but they may be deported later. Most of the detainees posted $ 5,000 bail each, he said.
Horman said the INS has been studying the placement practice of the two firms for over six months. He claimed these firms had indulged in "body snatching" -- telling the government they would place highly skilled foreign workers in jobs that did not exist then sending the technicians elsewhere.
He said two firms may have broken the law by claiming they would place the workers in Houston, then later shifting them to San Antonio.
But De Mott said the dispute rests on whether Softech and Frontier, which helped the workers obtain H1-B visas allowing them to work in the United States, were, in fact, employing those workers.
'The law says if you come here on an H1-B visa, you have to work for the employer that brought you here on your H1-B visa,' he was quoted as saying in the local newspaper.
'(INS) is saying they are no longer employed by the people that brought them here, therefore they are in violation of their visa status,' he continued. 'Our argument is they continue to be employed by the people that brought them here for their H1-B visas.'
Captain Tracy O'Grady-Walsh, an air force personnel center spokesperson, was not sure what the status of the 40 people is and whether they will be allowed to work again at the Randolph base. She said a probe is continuing, but did not know "what is going to happen with our relationship with the contractors."
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