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Ahead of H1B lottery, Silicon Valley’s ‘darkest’ immigration secret hits cinemas

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-03-2017 Saritha Rai

Bangalore: A feature film about the difficulties facing an Indian temporary work-visa holder waiting for permanent residency will be screened in 25 US cinemas on Friday, with backing from Silicon Valley investors, fuelling an already heated immigration debate.

The film, “For Here or To Go?” was written and produced by San Francisco-based Rishi Bhilawadikar, 33, one of the estimated million-plus H1B visa holders in the country. The title is a play on the ubiquitous question at coffee shops and fast-food outlets that often flummoxes new arrivals.

The movie is being shown on the eve of the annual lottery for the three-year visas, which are awarded to foreign workers in specialty occupations ranging from software engineers to fashion models. President Donald Trump is trying to tighten the immigration system and his administration’s efforts to monitor H1B visas were revealed in a leaked executive order.

Applications flood in on the 1 April opening date for the 65,000 annual quota of H1B visas. Tens of thousands of additional visas are granted for special cases such as advanced degree holders. Employers can sponsor H1B holders to apply for a Green Card that gives the right to permanent residence, but the approvals process is backlogged and caps on country of birth mean that applicants from nations like India and China may wait a decade or more.

“A person with my level of skills from Sri Lanka would get a Green Card in six months whereas I could be waiting 15 years,” said Bhilawadikar, who helps improve customer interaction and e-commerce as a user experience designer for Gap Inc.

VC funding

Funded by investors including venture capitalist Brad Feld of Foundry Group, the movie tells the story of Vivek Pandit, a Silicon Valley-based software professional, and his friends, who struggle to navigate the US immigration system. As a “temp worker,” Pandit is unable to make long-term life decisions like founding a company, buying a home or starting a family.

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“It’s the untold story of hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants who drive a nice-enough car but avoid buying expensive furniture for fear of having to leave it all behind,” said Bhilawadikar. “I set about making this film to humanize my story and the story of a million others like me.”

There could be up to 2 million Indian workers in the Green Card backlog, according to David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute think-tank.

Advocates of immigration often cite H1B success stories like Sundar Pichai of Google and Satya Nadella of Microsoft. But the work visas are controversial and critics say companies that use them the most — information technology services companies with the bulk of their operations in India — are hurting American workers by undercutting salaries and taking away jobs.

Workers who want to gain permanent residence are treated like indentured labor, said Vivek Wadhwa, Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering. If they change jobs or take a promotion, they lose their turn in line, so they end up doing menial jobs during the most productive years of their lives, he said.

“I call this one of Silicon Valley’s darkest secrets,” said Wadhwa, who is also a director of research at Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.

The movie was first shown in the US at the Cinequest Film Festival in California in February 2015 and has been screened at festivals in Melbourne, Toronto and Mumbai. It has also had a special screening at Rayburn House, a congressional office building for the US House of Representatives on Capitol Hill, according to Bhilawadikar.

Bhilawadikar, who came to the US as a 22-year-old computer engineer to get a master’s degree from Indiana University, has been on a skilled-worker visa for 11 years — those accepted into the Green Card queue can extend their H1B visa while waiting for approval. He says he could be 40 by the time he gets his Green Card. Bloomberg

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