One year ago Thursday, the national news media turned its attention to Olathe, Kansas, where Adam Purinton allegedly screamed racist taunts before shooting two Indian tech workers and another man who tried to defend them at Austin’s Bar and Grill.
One of the Indian men was killed, and the United States Department of Justice labeled it a hate crime.
The shooting sparked a discussion about xenophobia in the age of Trump, but it also drew attention to what some consider a broken visa system for high-tech workers.
Srinivas Kuchibhotla was working as an aviation systems engineer at Garmin, in Olathe. But after more than a decade of attending graduate school and working steadily in the U.S., his immigration status was still tenuous, hanging on a temporary visa for highly-skilled workers — an H-1B.
That caused a big problem for Kuchibhotla’s wife, Sunayana Dumala, who knew immediately that losing her husband meant losing her right to stay in the United States. She says the thought hit her as she slumped on the stairs of her suburban home, moments after an Olathe police officer told her that Kuchibhotla was dead.
“While I was trying to process that — 'Is it true that that I can’t speak to him? Is it true that I can’t hear his voice forever, I can’t see him, I can’t touch him?' — I was also trying to process that, 'Oh my god, do I, should I ... I just have to leave this house, the house that we built with so many dreams?'”
Since Dumala’s immigration status hinged entirely on her husband’s H-1B visa, she feared she’d be blocked from returning to Kansas after his funeral in India.
The situation angered Kevin Yoder, a Republican congressman who represents Dumala’s district.
“If she was from any other country than India, they would've been American citizens already,” says Yoder. “And that is because there is a country-cap on green cards in America.”
There are only so many green cards available to H-1B workers each year, and no more than 7 percent of them can go to people from any one country.
India, however, accounts for more than 50 percent of foreign tech workers in the U.S.
Prakash Wadhwa, a Kansas City-based filmmaker whose documentary “From the Land of Gandhi” explores this situation, argues that the system punishes some of the world’s most valuable employees.
“The economy does not pick people based on where they are born. The economy picks people based on the skills that are needed in the economy,” says Wadhwa. “It just so happens that India is supplying those skills. Now immigrants from India have to pay for that.”
Wadhwa compares working under an H-1B visa to indentured labor. Companies, not workers, are the entities that hold the visas. So if an H-1B worker loses her job, she’s supposed to leave the U.S. And the foreign-born children of immigrant high-tech workers can face deportation when they turn 21, despite having lived in the U.S. legally for years. People working under H-1B visas also can’t start their own businesses or rent out their property.
While Indian workers are most affected, tech professionals from China, Mexico, and the Philippines who are seeking green cards also face backlogs, Yoder says.
He has proposed legislation and lined up more than 300 members of the House, Democrats as well as Republicans, to support it.
“Our bill eliminates that per-country cap, and it says 'first come, first served' s opposed to picking our workers based upon which country they're from, which essentially puts all Indians in the back of the line,” he says.
But John Miano of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies says speeding up green cards for Indian workers would mean slowing them down for people from the rest the world.
“It would transform America's system of diversity in immigration, into an India-first policy of immigration,” says Miano.
Miano says outsourcing companies in India already exploit the H-1B system, bringing tens of thousands of Indian tech workers to the U.S. These companies, such as Infosys, Tech Mahindra and Wipro, are by far the biggest users of H-1B visas.
Daniel Costa of the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute says the high-skilled work visa system pushes down wages.
“Employers get the benefit of being able to pay H-1B workers less than the going rate for that job,” Costa argues. “And they also have a worker that's tied to them, and much less likely to complain or speak up because they're afraid of being removed from the country if they lose their job, which means losing their visa.”
Congress is moving to restrict that system, making it harder for U.S. companies to hire foreign tech workers on H-1B visas. And the Department of Homeland Security has proposed reversing an Obama-era policy allowing foreign spouses of H-1B workers to hold jobs in the U.S.
But tech companies say they are already critically starved for highly skilled workers. Mira Mdivani, an Overland Park immigration lawyer who helps U.S. firms navigate the visa system, says that system is already far more complex, expensive, and capricious than it should be.
"It really impedes business in the United States. It’s really bad for business. It keeps them from growing,” says Mdivani, adding the shortage forces her clients to outsource jobs overseas.
Bills in both the House and Senate would expand the number of employment-based green cards, even as they slash the number open to other immigrants.
Yoder is trying to get his bill considered as part of a DACA compromise, but it’s still waiting for a hearing.
In the meantime, members of the Indian community around Kansas City wait to see whether an alleged killer who wanted immigrants out of his country will inadvertently help make it easier for some to stay.
Frank Morris reports for KCUR and NPR. You can find him on Twitter @FrankNewsman.