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In 1999, Canadian national Christine Yu and her Indian roommate Smrithi Prabhu spent their first year after graduate school working at tech companies — Yu for MCI Worldcom Inc. in Arlington and Prabhu for American Management Systems in Fairfax. At the end of the year, they hoped attorneys working for their employers could secure them H1-B visas, allowing them to work in the United States for another six years. “If you can’t work, there’s no way you can afford to stay,” says Prabhu. For Prabhu, the process was painless. When her student visa expired, AMS had her H1-B ready to kick in. For Yu, it was a different story. When her visa expired, all the H1-Bs allotted for the year had been doled out. She spent four months unemployed before MCI attorneys found a way to get her back to work. Educated workers like Prabhu and Yu are far from the only Northern Virginians hungry for H1-B visas. Companies yearning to satisfy seemingly limitless appetite for technology-savvy workers in the region are urging Congress to increase the number of special visas granted yearly. Technology companies have poured more than $13 million in campaign contributions and soft money into federal elections this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and many companies are hopeful that a bill sponsored by two Silicon Valley representatives or another measure in the Senate will boost the number of H1-B visas issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the second time since 1998. “Each year, there are hundreds of positions,” said John Nahajzer, in-house immigration counsel at Vienna-based MicroStrategy Inc. “The talent pool is just not there.” He says the current limit on H1-Bs has his and other companies thinking years in advance, sometimes moving to secure visas for workers as soon as they meet them. “Because we are so conscious of the problems with the caps, we start the process for H1-B visas for employees as soon as we hire someone,” Nahajzer said. While the international workers are changing the face of the labor force in Northern Virginia and other tech hot spots, the need for specialized job candidates is also altering the immigration bar. Nahajzer is part of a growing group of immigration attorneys, some in-house and others in their private practices, whose primary mission is to help technology companies protect their work force. Michael Maggio, a partner at D.C.’s Maggio & Kattar, says the typical immigration case in the 1970s and 1980s looked nothing like it does today. “Back then, much of the work we did was find ways to secure visas for scientists at the National Institutes of Health and [for] Central Americans working as housekeepers and farm hands,” he said. NEW TIMES, NEW CLIENTS Today, instead of working for potential government workers and minimum-wage earners, Maggio finds himself laboring for metropolitan area technology companies, including the Rockville-based Celera Genomics Corp. The scramble for H1-B visas is common in what one Virginia CEO calls the “tech ghetto,” where high pay is the offset for a grueling work schedule and a tumultuous job market. Despite the promise for an increase from the current annual allotment of 115,000 H1-B visas, a happy ending is not coming soon enough for many employers. “The legislation out there to alleviate the shortage of technology talent is unlikely to go into effect for fiscal year 2000,” said Elizabeth Stern, head of Shaw Pittman’s immigration practice. Stern has helped craft proposed legislation that would fund technology training for workers. “It really leaves companies in a devastated state.” A proposal by Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.) would completely remove the cap on H1-B visas, but it is scorned by immigration lawyers because of its restrictions on companies. For instance, if the median wage falls for U.S. employees during the previous calendar year, an employer can’t sponsor foreigners for H1-B visas. Companies would also have to make public the names, job titles, and salaries for recipients of H1-B visas, information that techies view as trade secrets. What the tech community is rooting for is the competing bill from David Drier (R-Calif.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). The bill raises the number from 115,000 per year to 200,000, allows for electronic filings of visa applications, and carries none of the restrictions of Smith’s bill. If no legislation passes this year, the cap falls to 107,500 as a result of language in 1998 legislation that raised the number from 65,000 to 115,000. Pro-labor lobbyists, however, continue to rail against any increase at all. “It’s a form of indentured servitude, even if it is for a lot of money,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director at the Center for Immigration Studies. “There is no tech labor shortage. This is fiction invented by employers who don’t want to do what’s necessary to take advantage of what’s there. I’m not saying it’s easy or cheap to find the talent, but asking Congress to make life easier, instead of competing in the labor market, isn’t fair.” Most techies disagree. “It’s hard to find qualified people even with unrestricted access [to the global labor pool]” says Joanne Horgan, director of international human resources at American Management Systems, where Prabhu works in the telecommunications group. “ But, because of the vagaries of the Senate and House, we can’t rely on the visas.” Instead, AMS has implemented an extensive in-house training program. Yet it takes longer and costs more for companies to make the trainees as productive as workers they could tap from elsewhere, she says. Stern, who represents AMS, Microstrategy and webMethods, among others, says that, without the visas, companies risk slowdowns in technical advances, growth and productivity. “What companies will do, in spite of the fact of the staffing crisis, is move away from international recruitment,” Stern said. “If this is more trouble than it’s worth, they’ll retract in an area of recruitment that has been highly successful.” Raj Shah, founder and CEO of the Rockville-based Capital Surini Group International Inc., an Internet technology consulting firm, says he’s at risk of having to slow the growth of his 200-person company because of the cap. Combating those who want to limit the visas to protect American jobs, Shah points out that for every hard-core tech job he would give to someone with an H1-B, four or five other jobs are created. But meanwhile, he’s on the hunt for the available H1-B visas. “We handle it like the airlines do, by overbooking,” Shah said. “We apply for extras knowing that we aren’t going to get them all. We’ve also redesigned our development program to fall in line with immigration’s visa cycle. Basically, we adjust.”

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