Strategy

Visa Dust-Up

Are Indian companies who send employees to America using L-1 visas for their intended purpose?
Tom LeanderFebruary 29, 2008

Asian companies looking to build their businesses in the United States have
long complained
that Washington imposes an unfair block by a miserly issuance of H1-B visas.
But another, lesser-known
type of visa has become the cause of complaints in the other direction, via
American politicians who charge
that Indian business process outsourcing (BPO) companies are abusing them.

On the surface, the complaints about the H1-B visa look valid. The current
limit in a single year is
65,000, a quota that gets filled in a single day. But H1-B issuance is only
part of the story. The real total of
foreign employees admitted to the United States each year is close to
400,000, and most arrive on what is
known as a “blanket” L-1.

H1-B visas are issued only if a company can successfully show that it’s
impossible to find a citizen to
do the same job. These visas are coveted, because they allow entry into the
country on a long-term basis
and often lead to citizenship. In contrast, L-1s are issued to
multinationals to fill specialized jobs on a temporary
basis — often as part of a rotation program with U.S. employees. The
understanding is that the foreign
employees will return home after a defined, relatively short period.

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There’s no cap on L-1s, and approval allows a company to bring in as many
eligible foreign
employees as it desires. Indian BPO companies are the most prevalent users
of L-1s. In fiscal 2006, Tata
Consultancy Services received 4,887 L-1s, and 3,601 in 2007. Some 14 of the
top 20 companies granted the
most L-1s are BPO companies.

“L-1s are the only way that companies in this
profession can achieve their goals,” says Brandon
Valvo, founder and managing director of Valvo and
Associates, a firm specializing in immigration law in
California. But he says that there’s a growing sense
among U.S. businesses and labor unions that companies
are abusing L-1s.

Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat,
launched a tirade against L-1s during last year’s immigration
reform debate. “I find it hard to believe that
any one company has that many individuals…legitimately
being transferred in a year.” Crtics claim that
some companies are using the L-1s to fill unskilled jobs
that could be given to U.S. citizens.

In late December, the U.S. Department of
State issued a directive saying that non-immigrant
visas such as L-1s now require an extra hurdle for
approval. Previously, blanket L-1s required no individual
security clearance.

For their part, the BPO firms say they’re playing
fair. “We always use each visa for the right objective,”
says Eshan Joshi, head of global immigration and HR
compliance at Infosys, the Indian BPO giant.

He also slammed the H1-B system as bad for
American — as well as foreign — firms. “We hope
that the U.S. lawmakers will appreciate the adverse
impact…on U.S. companies and take corrective
action quickly,” he said.