On temporary visas, skilled workers are putting down real roots
By Tyrone Beason
The Seattle Times, April 21, 2008
Seattle — The American Dream can sneak up on people.
Take Naresh Bhatt and his wife, Bansri, who moved to the United States from India 15 years ago under a government visa program for highly skilled and sought-after workers.
Like thousands of Indian immigrants with computer skills who've taken advantage of the 'H-1B' program, they came as temporary workers in the Seattle area's burgeoning high-tech sector, where companies like Microsoft were aggressively recruiting foreign nationals to fill positions in their work forces.
The visa allows firms to hire such foreign workers and keep them here for up to six years, longer in some cases.
Naresh was recruited by Paccar, the commercial-vehicle manufacturer, and Bansri took a job at a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm that contracted computer-technology workers to local companies.
'I never had a dream to come to the United States,' 39-year-old Naresh says now, sitting on a floral print couch in the living room of his home in a Sammamish Plateau subdivision glowingly named Provence.
His two chipper daughters bounce around on the periphery, the way kids do when parents have strangers in the house.
'Life was good down there – financially we were very well off,' chimes in Naresh's wife, referring to the upper-middle-class world they left behind in Mumbai, the teeming port formerly known as Bombay.
Things changed – and not just for the Bhatts.
As bitter debate swirls over what do to about millions of undocumented foreign workers who often live in the shadows of American society, it's easy to forget that we are in the midst of a whole other, legal, mass migration.
Driven by hiring in high-tech fields, hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, including a huge influx of young Indians with H-1B visas such as the Bhatts, are putting down roots in a country that invited them to come – sought them out, even.
In the Seattle area, particularly the Eastside, the surge of Indian workers has been breathtaking. Some 45,000 Indians live in the state, an increase of more than 70 percent over the population in 2000. Most live in and around the Puget Sound region's technology corridor.
At Microsoft, fully a third of its 36,000-strong workforce in Washington is made up of immigrants with H-1B visas and green cards, mostly Indians. Other local firms, such as Expedia, Amazon, Starbucks and Boeing, also hire foreign technology workers from India, though in smaller numbers than the software goliath in Redmond.
Naresh, who moved to information technology for Starbucks, and Bansri, now at the exercise-equipment maker Precor in Woodinville, are typical of those who come, not out of economic necessity but for interesting work, career advancement or simply because they can.
With their two American-born girls and two incomes, their two-story house and its two-car garage, the Bhatts say they are just as well off in America as they were in Mumbai.
'We came as explorers,' Naresh says of his first years here. 'We didn't know what to expect.'
What was meant to be a short-term work experience turned into an immigration story for the new century.
The H-1B visa was not designed to turn temporary foreign workers into permanent residents, at least not directly.
The visa is reserved for well-educated foreign nationals with specialty skills like accounting, computer engineering and medicine, and it's intended for U.S. companies that cannot find citizens of this country to fill those jobs. The companies recruit and sponsor the foreign workers, applying for the H-1B visas on their behalf.
Congress limits the number of H-1Bs the government can grant to 65,000 a year. But this year it expects to receive twice that number of requests. India, with its growing technology sector, supplies anywhere from a third to more than half of the workers who are granted visas each year.
But the program, though popular, is not without controversy.
Microsoft's Bill Gates is among those calling for looser restrictions on recruiting overseas to fill American technology jobs that companies say can't be filled by native citizens. Just last month, Gates spoke to Congress, calling on the federal government to let in more workers. Citing further declines in the number of U.S. science and technology students, he warned that the nation will lose its global competitiveness if something isn't done.
Workers' groups, on the other hand, are pushing to protect more jobs for Americans and keep wages up. They argue American companies are using the program to shift jobs to foreign nationals who can be easily fired and replaced, and possibly paid less.
'They don't use the H-1B as a bridge to immigration,' says Ron Hira, an associate professor of economics at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who has studied foreign labor issues. 'It's really like a nomadic experience for contractors.'
H-1B workers are, in many ways, at the mercy of their employer-sponsors. If they are fired or choose to quit, they must return to their native countries. They can't switch jobs unless the old and new employers agree.
Among the benefits of the visa, however, is that it allows workers to apply for a green card to gain permanent residency in the United States.
In 1995, the Bhatts decided to apply for green cards. Once they received them, Naresh and Bansri were able to apply for U.S. citizenship, which both were granted in 2000.
But if an H-1B worker leaves a job, as many foreign contract workers do, the green-card process must start all over again if the application is still pending.
The green card, Hira notes, gives workers leverage when negotiating better wages and landing new jobs. Salaries top $75,000 a year for Indians who are permanently certified to work in computer-related fields, about $10,000 higher than for H-1B holders.
Another incentive for H-1B workers to seek a longer-term arrangement is personal. While the visas are temporary, life – family, friends, faith, sports – has a way of going on. With each passing year the sense of permanence, and community, grows.
Unlike some previous generations of immigrants, the Indian workers riding this latest incoming wave aren't interested in putting their heritage on hold, and they resist living as islands unto themselves. They've found that in the Puget Sound region, at least, they can escape the limbo of living between nations.
In practicing the Hindu-derived Krishna faith, the Bhatts keep a 6-foot-high gilded wooden altar in what would be their dining room. In the upper part, crowned figurines representing the boyish cow herder-god Krishna and his brother sit in bright-orange and gold robes adorned with imitation gems. The room is treated as if Krishna and his brother are real people. Every morning, the Bhatts present a lit candle, water, milk and fresh flowers to Krishna and pray to him.
Naresh is a leader at the Vedic Temple and Cultural Center, a Krishna congregation that's been holding services and feasts at a nondescript office park in Redmond while its $3.7 million domed temple is built on the plateau, at the site of an old rambler that once served as temple. Bansri teaches Sunday school there.
The new temple, when completed this spring, will present a bold face of Indian culture on a strip dotted with Christian churches and public schools. Even now, the temple's programs aim to incorporate, rather than avoid, mainstream culture.
'In our temple,' Naresh says with pride, 'Santa Claus comes every year.' The temple hosts an egg hunt on Easter, too. The eggs are filled with pictures of Hindu gods as well as candy.
Naresh, who wears an expression of utter joy even when he's saying something serious, leads the way upstairs to a bedroom where his daughters, Aditi and Sachi, are playing.
In a corner, there's a small Krishna altar with its own set of well-dressed figurines. Aditi, 9, regularly feeds them a vegetarian diet and changes their clothes.
It's the parents' way of passing on Krishna values to their thoroughly Americanized children. 'We don't try to force one thing over the other' for the girls, Naresh says. He could, however, do without Barbie dolls. In the girls' play room, he holds up an unkempt Barbie and shakes his head. 'I am so upset with the Barbies – there are tons,' Naresh says, noticing that this one has a tattoo on her shoulder and pink dye in her hair.
Downstairs in the den, Naresh opens a cabinet door and points to a row of Disney DVDs, then grabs a couple of Indian children's films, including 'Ramaya: The Legend of the Prince of Rama,' that he thinks it's also important to have for the girls.
It goes on like this. One second the Bhatts chat happily about their love of America and everything it stands for. The next, they're emphasizing the importance of Indian religion and culture.
'You don't have to leave what you are to become someone else,' Bansri says while stirring a pan of masala-spiced zucchini in the kitchen.
Naresh flips the sentiment around: 'America was like a full cup of milk, and I added sugar to it. So it's more sweet.
'The notion that immigrants are coming here taking away jobs and diluting the culture is not true,' he goes on, now more forcefully. 'If anything, they have enriched American traditions and customs.'
On a cool Saturday morning, Vishwa Gaddamanugu stands at a ballfield in Renton as clusters of fit, young Indian men in track suits wait to play informal rounds of cricket.
The British military brought this game to India in colonial days, chiefly as a way to pass the time while waiting for ships to arrive. Similar in some ways to baseball, the game involves a familiar sequence of fast pitches, wild swings and mad sprints.
Indians are now the colonists introducing natives to their game.
Gaddamanugu, who came to the region on an H-1B visa in 1998, helped launch the Northwest Cricket League about six years ago and was active in Microsoft's cricket club. Before that, the 36-year-old Hyderabad native played with the few cricket fans he knew here.
'We were kind of tired of playing against each other,' he says, laughing. They started an amateur league with 20 people on four teams. By 2005, that number had grown to more than 60 teams with about 800 mostly Indian players taking to the field every weekend at parks on the Eastside.
'Cricket is in our blood, like soccer is in the blood of Brazilians,' says Anurag Hardiya, a 28-year-old software-design engineer at Expedia. For most of America, though, the game is a big unknown.
'The most frequently asked question – 95 percent of the time – is, `What's the goal of this game?'' Gaddamanugu says. 'We used to say, `To win.' '
Or, he might say, when he's feeling a little indignant, 'This is the second most popular game in the world, and you ask us this question?'
It's just that he wants Americans to love the game, too.
The game, says Gaddamanugu, 'opens up doors for people to come and talk.'
He feels less comfortable talking about Hinduism.
'If somebody asks me a question, I don't hesitate to give them answers,' he says. 'But religion is such a delicate thing. I don't want to make people angry … I can take more liberties with the game.'
Cricket, though, has had deeper effects. Vijay Beniwal, who works at Microsoft on an H-1B visa, says he found help to open an Indian supermarket, Apna Bazar, in part through the game.
Beniwal, 30, and co-owners Samir Bhatt and Srini Sanagapalli, come from different regions of India and speak three different native languages, yet found a sense of belonging through cricket.
'This is where we really got together as friends,' Bhatt says, noting the irony of coming all the way to America to build cultural ties with other Indians. 'It's so funny.'
In a typical suburban neighborhood of tidy houses on cul-de-sacs, some 300 people are packed into the main hall of the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center in Bothell.
Worshippers chant in front of a stage arrayed with statues of Hindu gods decked out in glimmering robes and jewels. Priests in robes lead a chorus of pujas, or prayers, as someone weaves through the hall with a tray of candles that people wave their hands over _ a way of experiencing the light of the gods.
It's all part of Diwali, a three-day holiday honoring Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Offerings of aromatically spiced food, sweets and fruit are laid out on carpets where worshippers kneel. In the coming nights, there will be more feasting, and fireworks.
Arun Sharma introduces himself as head of the temple's youth group and says he moved from New Delhi to the United States in 1991 to be with his wife, a green-card holder who had a job here. The Boeing information technology specialist considers himself part of the first wave of new Indian immigrants to this country, back before foreign-worker programs became a hot-button issue. Now 43, he became a citizen in 1998.
Yet for all the joy he and his family draw from Diwali and other local cultural events, bridging India and America can be a challenge.
His daughter, Chandi, is 15 now and a leader in the youth league at the temple, but Sharma says he recalls some tough conversations when she was younger.
Chandi, who attends public schools and has American-born friends, would ask questions like, 'Dad, why don't we go to church?' and 'Dad, when did we come here?'
'Those can be interesting times,' Sharma says of the discussions.
Chandi was born in the United States – a citizen by birth. But she sometimes feels like an outsider. Finding a balance between the old and new worlds is a burden all immigrants share, and hand down to their kids, who 'want the protection of their parents and the freedoms of the mainstream culture,' Sharma says. 'Our culture is much more protective,' he explains. 'It's not easy for us to allow her to go to parties. We don't allow her to go to the mall alone – we have to go with her.'
In India, he adds, 'the concept of having a boyfriend or girlfriend, when you're below a certain age, is very much frowned upon.'
While these are universal parental worries, in Sharma's case they are tinged with cultural ambivalence. After more than 15 years, Sharma says he still has 'not evolved' with mainstream American culture. He works extra hard to preserve and pass on what he knows of India. But he's been away so long he's missed his homeland's rapid development and Westernization. 'I got frozen in time,' Sharma says. The strange thing is, 'I can't fit in there' today, nor is he truly in this culture.
But ultimately, Sharma says, 'We made a choice to come here – we weren't forced.' And so, it follows, 'we know we have to embrace this culture.'
Perhaps in recognition of their employees' struggle to bridge two worlds, companies such as Microsoft encourage Indian employees to celebrate their culture.
Vishwa Gaddamanugu, who is president of the Hindu Temple in Bothell, says Microsoft offers to match its Indian employees' donations to the temple dollar for dollar. For workers who volunteer at the temple, the company also pays $17 an hour to the organization on their behalf, as it does for all employees. Boeing has similar programs.
It is partly because of this support that the Hindu Temple plans to break ground soon on its own multimillion-dollar new worship space to serve its growing membership of some 400 people.
Yet for some recently arrived through the H-1B program, the tug of home remains too strong. They embrace America, take advantage of its opportunities and soak up the flowering immigrant scene. But they are set on returning home.
Anurag Hardiya, who got his H-1B visa after studying at the University of Southern California, is one. He's the kind of person who will rave about sampling the Southern food at a Thanksgiving dinner he attended with a family in Nashville last year, then wax about the central role his own extended family back home plays in his life here.
Hardiya says his experience at Expedia has been great, and he has no regrets or worries. But he misses his family deeply. He returned from his annual visit to Indore in late January.
He and his mom talk by phone every other day, and he sets aside money each month to pay for the long-distance charges: 'She knows when I'm going to parties, what I'm doing, my health.'
While a virtual India has sprung up all around him in the form of social networks, markets, places of worship and the all-important cricket, Hardiya insists 'I don't want to become too attached. Then I won't want to leave.'
Just to be safe, he's set a goal of saving enough money to go home and start a business in his native country, where technology-venture opportunities are rapidly expanding – thanks in part to ties with U.S. companies.
Hardiya just might find his American Dream in India. In any case, he – not his H-1B visa – will control his destiny.
'One-third of what I make here is huge in India,' Hardiya muses. 'At least I have some direction. We'll see what succeeds.'