Vipul Sharma, a software engineer and U.S. patent holder, works at the leading edge of computer system innovation. He's also subject to the bureaucratic pitfalls of U.S. immigration law.
Sharma, 30, uses artificial intelligence tools and applies them to Internet user data to try to predict patterns in online behavior. It's a new field called machine learning, one he works at in his job at San Francisco events startup Eventbrite.
Yet despite his qualifications as an engineer and scientist, the University of Houston graduate was almost shut out of the U.S. job market.
Several years ago, while in his native India for a relative's wedding, he was informed by an immigration attorney that the U.S. had changed its rules for Indians holding a certain type of guest work visa known as an H1B.
Vipul, who was working at another startup at the time, was advised to travel to a third country before attempting to get back into the U.S., to avoid a lengthy delay that could have cost him his job. At the same time, his friends and fellow engineers urged him to stay and work in India.
"I thought about going back, about staying back," Sharma said.
But he believed the chance to work in the U.S. was worth the hassle.
"What we're doing today is at least a year ahead of what they're doing in India," he said. "The business culture here promotes the most innovation."
Whether the U.S. can maintain its status as the mecca for foreign innovators, however, is growing more uncertain.
The Talent Gap
Many high-level engineering jobs here go unfilled for months as companies seek out workers with rare skill sets, many of whom are not American. Meanwhile, a growing number of people -- foreigners qualified to do those very jobs -- are choosing to return to their native country and work rather than subject themselves to U.S. immigration rules, according to those who represent, advocate for and try to hire H1B visa holders. That's true even for those who have been educated at U.S. universities.
"That's the shame of it, that we train them here and then make it extremely difficult to work here," said Peter Cleveland, vice president for legal and corporate affairs at chip giant Intel Corp., who lobbies for immigration reform.
Intel, Cisco Systems Inc. and other large technology companies have been lobbying Washington hard for years to raise the annual quota limits for workers applying for H1B visas.
Approximately 6% of Intel's U.S. work force, or about 2,900 employees, either hold H1B work visas or are former H1B holders who have since earned a green card, Cleveland said.
But that represents just a fraction of the number of foreign engineers that the company could hire if the process to bring them to the U.S. wasn't so "archaic and onerous," Cleveland said.
The minimum wait time for H1B visas -- which have to be renewed after three, for a maximum term of six years in total -- is three to five months, and is often much longer. Acquiring a green card can take anywhere from five to 10 years.
"We want to hire U.S. workers first, but we need to hire the best workers" to remain competitive, he said. Yet the U.S. is "discouraging them from coming here."
H1B visa application trends suggest that could be true.
The maximum number of new workers who can enter the U.S. in any given year under the H1B program is currently capped at 65,000.
Twenty thousand of those are set aside for workers who have earned a master's degree or higher from a U.S. university. Those who work in higher eduction, for non-profit organizations and in government research are exempt from such restrictions, according to Charles Small, an immigration attorney in San Francisco who specializes in H1B application processing.
Employers who want to hire such skilled foreign workers typically apply to sponsor one on April 1, six months before the beginning of the government's fiscal year, Small said. Newly approved H1B holders usually can't start work until Oct. 1.
Is the U.S. Losing Its Edge?
For years, the annual quota would be reached soon after potential employers began submitting their applications to the appropriate U.S. agencies, most importantly the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.
In 2006, for example, the so-called "cap" was reached in July, 2006, Small said. In 2007 and 2008, the quota was hit within one day and eight days of April 1, respectively.
"Anyone who didn't have their application in order and filed on April 1 had no chance" of getting into the U.S. that fiscal year, he said.
Yet in 2009, the quota wasn't filled until December. For this year, the quota has yet to be reached. The U.S. Customs and Immigration service had received 42,800 H1B petitions as of Oct. 15, according to Small, who has access to the U.S. data on behalf of his clients.
Some of that is due to the U.S. economic slowdown, Small said. Yet he, Vipul Sharma and Peter Cleveland say there's more going on.
"The process is frustrating and demoralizing to foreign workers," Intel's Cleveland said. "Eventually, it will become untenable," he said.
The fact that the cap has not been reached until well into the government's fiscal year has taken some of the steam out of the arguments that Cleveland and others have made to lawmakers.
It's unlikely that H1B visa reform will happen except within the framework of comprehensive U.S. immigration reform, something which in turn is unlikely until after the mid-term elections.
"Immigration is a difficult, emotional issue," Cleveland said. Until something changes, Intel "won't be deterred by the system" from hiring the people it needs. "If we have to place people overseas, under the Intel umbrella, we will do that."
In the meantime, people like Sharma will have to deal with the system in place.
He took his attorney's advice to go to a third country, and was able to quickly return to the U.S.
Now, several years later, he is helping to build a fast-growing company that is creating scores of high-paying jobs a year. He's also grateful for his chance to be working here.
"I'm one of the lucky few," he said.
Write to John Shinal