Techies petition ‘Visa Balaji’

Washington / New Delhi: Ravi Shanker makes weekly pilgrimages to Chilkur Balaji temple outside Hyderabad, India, asking for a little help on immigration from an incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

Shanker, a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, a top engineering school, is praying for an H-1B visa to enter the US. He needs all the divine intervention he can get, because he’s not just vying with other software engineers for the high-skill work permits. His other rivals? Fashion models.

An oversight by the US Congress two decades ago led to the inclusion of models in the H-1B class. A 2007 bill to put them in another category — and let their numbers soar – failed. Its sponsor: then-Representative Anthony Weiner of New York, who quit Congress in 2011 after engaging in lewd online behaviour.

While models will get less than 1% of the visas, the H-1Bs are increasingly coveted. Demand was so high this year that the government’s cap on applications was reached only five days after the filing period opened on April 1.

“It’s the one exception that we all scratch our heads about,” Neil Ruiz, an analyst at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Programme, said of the addition of models as the only H-1B category that requires no bachelor’s degree.

As Congress again debates a plan to steer more skilled foreign workers to the US, it is likely to leave intact the provision allowing fashion models to compete for permits. Revisions being considered in the Senate would raise the basic H-1B visa cap to 1.10 lakh from 65,000 permits and increase fees on employers who depend heavily on the foreign workers. Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat co-sponsoring a bipartisan proposal, declined comment.

Fashion models are almost twice as likely to get their visas as computer programmers, by one rough measure.

The inclusion of fashion models into the visa category that allows at least 65,000 scientists, engineers and other highly skilled foreign workers to work in the US has its roots in a 1990 revision of immigration law that created separate classes of visas for performers, athletes, Nobel Prize laureates and religious workers.

After Congress passed the revision, former Representative Bruce Morrison, a Connecticut Democrat who led the House immigration panel, said lawmakers realised they had not put fashion models in a separate category or moved them to a special class reserved for performers and athletes.

The expansion of H-1B visas is supported in Silicon Valley, where thousands of applications are made.

“For us to continue to be the place where the world’s most creative, brilliant entrepreneurs come to build the next eBay, Google and Intel – each of which was co-founded by an immigrant entrepreneur – our immigration system needs to change,” Jeffrey Bussgang, a general partner at Boston-based Flybridge Capital, told the Senate Commerce Committee on May 8.

Meanwhile, near Hyderabad, thousands of people gather every weekend at the temple that is home of the sheltered shrine of the “Visa Balaji,” as Lord Venkateswara, the Vishnu incarnation, is called. The temple’s priest, Rangarajan, said the crowds begin gathering about 7 am.

The temple has been a popular attraction for visa hopefuls for more than two decades, said Rangarajan, 45, who uses only one name.

“This is a cultural belief,” said Soma Krada, a 25-year-old software engineer for Infosys, who has applied for an H-1B visa to work in Houston. “I would feel terrible if my visa was rejected and I had not come here to pray.”

By 9 am, the priest, whose forehead and stomach are lined with white paint signalling his authority, is worried about the crowd. He asks how many are praying for visas. About 500 hands are raised, followed by chants of praise. As the crowd grows, Rangarajan urges supplicants to finish their obligatory 108 trips around the temple next week. “Visa is not under my control,” said Shanker, 28. “It’s all luck. The only way to change my luck is through God.” Bloomberg

Courtesy:   May 21, 2013DNA, Pune