Challenging times: Pakistan still ranks low in US ‘high-tech’ visa programme

Published: April 7, 2015
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LAHORE: 

Pakistan continues to rank eleventh among nations acquiring high-tech US visas as workers in the country’s rapidly growing information technology field face steep global competition.

According to figures released last month by the US Customs and Immigration Service, in 2014 US companies filed 318,824 petitions on behalf of foreign-born potential employees. Of the 315,857 approved, less than 1 percent, or 1,923 visas, went to Pakistanis.

Muhammad Adil, a software engineer from Lahore, is seeking a US company to sponsor his high-tech visa. A COMSATS graduate, he has freelanced for companies in the US, Belgium and Canada.

“The whole world is applying,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to find a sponsor by yourself. It’s a 1 per cent chance [of succeeding].”

The H-1b Specialty Occupation Workers programme grants high-tech visas to 65,000 skilled foreign nationals each year, not including renewals and exemptions for workers with master’s degrees or other qualifications. Successful applicants, who are required to hold bachelor’s degrees and have significant experience in specialised fields, work for American companies and can apply for visa renewal after three years.

Even if Adil receives a visa, there’s no guarantee that he won’t face further challenges.

Syed Humayun, a software engineer from Karachi with nearly 15 years of experience in the industry, was one of 851 Pakistanis awarded high-tech visas in 2012. He said he wanted to work in the US as much for professional development as for higher wages.

Because the H-1b process requires applications to be filed by a sponsoring US company, it’s common for foreign applicants to be employed already by its international conglomerate. But as Humayun learned, the number of US companies that use Pakistan as a source for H-1b workers is limited.

When he began researching the process, “I could count them on my fingertips – four, five, six companies,” he said.

Eventually, Humayun landed a job at the Lahore office of a New Jersey-based software company that was looking for qualified engineers. In May 2012, he began working in the New Jersey office, where he spent five months.

However, his experience was cut short. After visiting Pakistan that October for Eid, he was told at customs at Kennedy airport that his visa had been revoked and he couldn’t re-enter the US without further documentation from his employer. To this day, Humayun says he has few details about the circumstances that led to the visa revocation.

Saadia Siddique, a Chicago-based immigration attorney, said it’s not uncommon for visa holders to be out of the loop on their legal status.

“Normally the corporations will have in-house counsel who will file the paperwork,” she said. “[Employees] don’t necessarily have access to that paperwork.”

Humayun now works for a software company in Dubai and writes a blog about the H-1b process as a resource for his peers.

“It was very disappointing,” he said. “I even wrote to the head of the Karachi [US] consulate about my disappointment, my anger. Why [did] it have to happen like that?”

When asked about the revocation of Humayun’s visa, Marilu Cabrera, a public affairs officer for the US Customs, said her office was not allowed to share information on individual cases.

Why is Pakistan lagging?

Although his success with the H-1b program was short-lived, Humayun may have fared better than many of his peers. The US government doesn’t track visa applications by home country, but records show that from 2013 to 2014, roughly 4,000 Pakistanis were either awarded high-tech visas or had their existing visas renewed.

That number compares with India’s 407,000 H-1b holders. Indian and Chinese visa holders dominate the H-1b pool with nearly 80 percent of visas. Pakistan has ranked eleventh since at least 2011.

Humayun and Adil see other factors contributing to Pakistani high-tech workers’ struggle in the H-1b contest, including Pakistan’s role in combatting terrorism and perceptions resulting from its security situation.

A similar view is shared by Lahore-based immigration consultant Mumtaz Tarar, who since 1995 has helped Pakistanis who seek work-based visas.

“This hype has been created [about] Pakistanis, which is unfortunately a very negative aspect,” he said. “The concept about Pakistan has been unfortunately misinterpreted in America.”

Tarar believes those misinterpretations hamper H-1b chances for Pakistani high-tech workers.

“We are producing tons and tons of IT professionals who are not being used, not being capitalised,” he said.

Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis, who studies the H-1b process, believes that India’s dominance in the IT field may be significant. He says the relationship between the US and Indian economies is key to the latter’s success in the H-1b programme.

“Migration goes with networks, meaning that immigrants know about opportunities through other immigrants,” he said. “So when one group starts to specialize in one type of job, then the information travels very fast.”

India was one of the first developing countries to begin turning out IT graduates, establishing many technical universities in the 1980s and 1990s.  Siddique attributes this to India’s H-1b success.

The number of universities in India versus in Pakistan is “completely disproportionate to the populations,” she said. “A lot of universities in India have more access to hooking their students up to the US, like a networking situation.”

Striking a balance?

But, despite Pakistan’s global ranking in the H-1b pool, growth in its local IT sector and booming freelance market may signal new opportunities for the country’s large supply of emerging computer science professionals.

“We have started to put together an ecosystem for supporting IT startups that did not exist three years ago, now seen as very up and coming all over the world,” said Dr. Umar Saif, chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board and vice chancellor of Lahore’s Information Technology University.

Dr. Saif says startups in Pakistan are now focusing on “local solutions to local problems,” such as an Uber-like ride-sharing service for rickshaws. He said he believes there is a pent-up demand for the IT industry within the country.

All these factors, he believes, indicate increasing opportunities for local IT workers, with 95 percent of recent ITU graduate students employed full time when they enrolled. In addition to Lahore-based incubator and accelerator programs that allow workers to develop startup companies, Pakistani software engineers rank third behind the US and India in the international freelance market in terms of production.

With a few good ideas and greater interest from foreign investors, Dr Saif says, Pakistan can be competitive globally, which would be impressive considering the country’s IT industry blossomed only a little over a decade ago.

“You just need one or two home runs, and then you’re good to go,” he said.

Dr Saif also said he didn’t think eleventh is a particularly bad ranking in the H-1b contest, given Pakistan’s security situation and the nascent nature of the local industry. In his view, the changing landscape of the global IT industry now allows young professionals to flourish without going abroad.

“What you have now is a very flat world where [with] a good idea, you can build something distinct, put it out there and people start using it,” he said.

“From a mid-tier engineer’s point of view, you could do just as well in Pakistan. No one really cares in this world anymore where you’re from as long as you develop and deliver on your projects.”

(Joint reporting project between the express tribune and the international centre for journalists, ICFJ)

Published in The Express Tribune, April 7th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (33)

  • wb
    Apr 7, 2015 - 11:06AM

    This can improve if Pakistanis and Muslims in general are allowed to think and seek knowledge freely.

    Instead when you tell them that there are certain things that are perfect in this world, that makes them look within instead of looking without. They won’t seek knowledge. They’re crippled in their reasoning skills and applying knowledge.

    This is the reason I keep repeating that logic and Pakistanis are like light and darkness. Absolutely polar opposites.

    Of course, there are a handful of exceptions.Recommend

  • Bairooni Haath
    Apr 7, 2015 - 12:31PM

    Pakistan should make a pact with SA before sending its troops that all Indians must be returned back to India from United States and Pakistani software engineers should be given jobs there….Pakistan should request SA to convey this message to US……….Recommend

  • kb
    Apr 7, 2015 - 12:33PM

    As a US based small business we have first hand experience of working with staff members from India and Pakistan. We have even sponsored several H1 visas to date. There is a day and night difference in our ability to work with staff members from India versus Pakistan and most of that has nothing to do with the quality of training of the individuals. Mostly it has to do with power outages causing staff members not being able to work, law and order situation causing staff members to not able to get to work and horrible phone infrastructure and stone-age policies of the Pakistan government. With our India staff members we are constantly connected with them as if they were in the same room with us. With Pakistan staff members we feel that they live in the most desolate area of the world with virtually no access to civilization. The result over the years has been that the India office staff has increased 6 folds as it is much easier to train them and several Indian staff members have been sponsored while the Pakistan team has stayed the same. Recommend

  • rustum lahori
    Apr 7, 2015 - 12:52PM

    Indians sponsor other indians and guide them, they make a monopoly while there are few pakistanis that help other Pakistanis and guide them. besides USA has biased policies against Pakistanis and muslimsRecommend

  • Brainer
    Apr 7, 2015 - 1:15PM

    Why Pakistani’s are dying to go to US? American’s don’t even bother..
    The world is huge and there are a lot of better places to settle down..Recommend

  • manish
    Apr 7, 2015 - 1:39PM

    @Bairooni Haath:
    Trade between India and KSA is huge compared to pak and KSA. We are bigger customers of their oil. You may not believe but we have excellent relations with saudis as friends. We cooperate.
    Pakistan s relation with Saudi is more like a slave master relation. When they say jump you ask how high. They throw loose change money and you get pumped up die for them although you are not allowed to marry them. Why will they let their sons face bullet when they have sold out Pakistan. You obey them..we co operate
    Same goes with USARecommend

  • Apr 7, 2015 - 3:32PM

    @kb:
    Just to let you know it used to be that way the way you are saying but now a days young community of Pakistan who are educated enough to understand bpo business and know how to handle stuff like electricity and all. I can guarantee you that you can find better resource as compared to India no Offence. I myself running a small call center working for US projects. and also have worked for companies in US like Comcast, Time Warner, Direct Tv, Dish Network, AT&T, Auto Insurance, Solar and etc.Recommend

  • Shakil
    Apr 7, 2015 - 3:33PM

    Its all about Pakistan footprint in IT companies in US. India and Chinese have more companies that has offices in US and in turn hire and sponsor people from India and China.
    Plus the body shopper and middle man shell companies set up by Indians who recruit from India and outsource to US companies as local staff and pocket the profits.

    Its all about setting recruiting companies with a office in US, register as sponsor and go hire from India on cheaper rates. candidate take this in order to move to US even its a little low salary at start.Recommend

  • Apr 7, 2015 - 4:11PM

    No discrimination here, its the poor and pathetic higher education system that instead of imparting employable skills, teaches and preaches rote learning based system and outdated technologies. Recommend

  • Fawad
    Apr 7, 2015 - 5:04PM

    I thought being big critic of India and America, Raw and CIA, no one would like to go there, but it seems for job people are dying to go there. Complaining even, really weird,Recommend

  • Ahsun
    Apr 7, 2015 - 5:22PM

    @kb:
    certified indian troll.Recommend

  • woody
    Apr 7, 2015 - 5:52PM

    We just read an article which indicated that Pakistan is barely computer literate, doesn’t even have YouTube, and just got 3G. Nobody is discriminating against Pakistan – it’s a competitive world and your not qualified to compete. American businesses don’t care about your religion – they care about profits.Recommend

  • harry
    Apr 7, 2015 - 6:34PM

    The government does not facilitate job applicants, rather it inhibits them by creating unnecessary hurdles and charging fees. Let me give you an example. I have worked in UAE and USA and after I got the employment visa I was informed that I need to get a protector stamp on my passport. The process is very tedious and costs money and time to say the least. You have to get a new CNIC displaying your country of stay as the one you’re travelling to even though you don’t know if you will be settling there or not. That costs several thousand rupees and then comes getting the protector stamp on your passport from the protector of immigrants office run by a bunch of spineless ‘sifarishees’ just like any other govt organization in the country. How can a govt organization based in Pindi determine whether the visa is genuine and job offer the applicant holds is real in a matter of few hours just by looking at the job offer letter and passport?? Why does the Pakistani govt do this to it’s own citizens?? It is a money making scam.

    References:

    http://www.wikihow.com/Get-Your-Passport-Stamped-from-Protectorate-of-Emigrants-in-Pakistan

    http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/3738/why-i-broke-the-law-at-the-islamabad-airport/Recommend

  • Khan
    Apr 7, 2015 - 6:44PM

    H1B visa is just a game for big recruiting companies and cheap (by American Standards) outsourcing companies.

    I had been through the H1B process……..The process is very corrupt, the recruiting companies buy most of the available visas in bulk (based on false information about employee forecast) and use some to bring in cheap labor (who are kind of a bonded labor, and always threatened with visa revocation or very cheap salaries compared to their non H1B colleagues), rest of the un-used visa’s are sold to foreigners who want to get into USA (This is even worse, as in this case the buyer becomes nothing more than a slave to visa seller. The Seller make sure buyer pays him monthly fees plus the associated income tax to keep his visa current otherwise the buyer loses his status and paper works and eventually deported).

    The point is, as I said earlier, the H1B visa system is corrupt system and cannot be used to present a picture of nations technological superiority acceptance by USA companies.

    Yes, it is correct that being employee of American based multinational company help in process but only if the company is proper company. If the company is an Indian recruiting company (that provides cheap labor or outsource work), than what I stated above stays true.Recommend

  • awais
    Apr 7, 2015 - 7:35PM

    I went through the same process which is H1b, But i was lucky enough i guess because i was working for IBM Pakistan. I had a good technical background.

    When i started interviewing, all the employers were pressing for a first Skype interviews rather than phone interviews. I was really surprised by this but then i asked one of the employer that why do you guys prefer Skype. He then explained me that Indians have diluted the recruiting process so much. They do fraud all the time, Indian companies put some experience person on the phone who gives an interview on someone else’s behalf. They put fake IT experience, a fresh graduate comes with at least 5 years of experience which is bizarre. One of my friend who was working for some Indian recruiting company went out of job when USCIS put that company into their black list because of continuous fraud. But since they are more than 1 billion, so IT industry has no other option.

    But US Employers are getting smarter as well, they have turned it to their advantage. And the reason is,
    1- Indians IT consultants are dirt cheap to hire.
    2- H1b eventually change into Employment based green card, to cut it short, for Indians to get a green card it will take them minimum 8 years, for rest of the world except china, mexico and Philippines. it take 1-2 years to get a green card. And once your employer file for your green card you cannot change your employer. hence dirt cheap labor for at least 10 years bound to you.

    So its because of these two reason, employers prefer Indians resources.

    I have worked for oracle, IBM and other small companies as an independent contractor, and in all the projects PM was forced to do offshore development in India against his/her will. Development quality is always bad, but since labor is so cheap, companies can afford to drag the project long.
    Recently huge companies who focused a lot on customer service (e.g bank of america etc) have started moving their call center from India to Philippines & Caribbeans. Reason is Indian accent is really annoying for Americans and lot of companies started losing business because of bad customer service.
    Same trend is growing into IT industry as well. In my current project, against the higher management’s will we hired developers on site. Even with that, we had to let 2 Indian developers go because of their lack of knowledge & communication (I don’t know how they managed to pass the interview in the first place).
    So with my experience in IT industry, Only advantage that Indians have is their population. Nothing else. Recommend

  • Romy
    Apr 7, 2015 - 10:03PM

    @awais:

    You are partially very correct. I’m an Indian working in a top communication provider in Canada. We know the fake problem here are caused mainly by one ethnicity which comes from one South Indian state. These guys have formed a “gang” in North America pushing there very own people with almost complete fake experience. Some of them gets spotted in early stages & we have seen in my company, they were shown the door. NOW LET ME CORRECT YOU (where you went wrong). The guy who spotted the fraud in our company was an Indian itself. If you talk about service based companies of India like Infosys, Wipro, TCS etc… yes they manipulate the resumes to a greater extent to get visas BUT the guys who come from product based companies like HP from India, you just can’t match their skill. They will eat you alive. The problem is with service providers as they hold the chunk of visas. But I have had a Pakistani in my team from Toronto who was let go as well & he didn’t know how to write an INSERT in SQL working in DataWarehousing. So canvassing one group may not be appropriate. I myself being India born is very much against the outsourcing but helpless to stop it. May be greedy corporates realize one day.

    ET as this is a non biased opinion please do publish… ThanksRecommend

  • yo2da2
    Apr 7, 2015 - 10:12PM

    @Bairooni Haath: Good luck with that! Recommend

  • yo2da2
    Apr 7, 2015 - 10:30PM

    @Brainer: I agree with you about the green pastures for settling down abroad. But, the US economy, at $17 trillion, is the largest in the world (25% of the world total), followed by Chinese, Japanese, and a host European economies. As the good doctor said, it is a “flat world” (Thomas Friedman’s thesis) and you can work from anywhere. Why not find a beautiful place in Swat valley, use solar-cum-generator powered home (for uninterrupted connectivity), and start your IT business. One needs to keep the two goals separate: Moving to the US as an end in itself and working in IT. If working in IT for a US-connected firm is the goal, then why not, if you can, hold your nose and hook-up with a well-known Indian company (Infosys, TCS, Wipro) and through them get assignments for American firms. Doesn’t hurt trying.Recommend

  • yo2da2
    Apr 7, 2015 - 10:38PM

    @Ahsun: These accusations of being an Indian troll is rather short-sighted and mean. If you don’t agree with someone’s opinion then you label them a troll. Great! Your comment really is more “trollish” than kb’s. On the other hand, reader Bilal’s reply to kb was able to counter that experience with one of his own, without resorting to unnecessary insulting remarks. Recommend

  • yo2da2
    Apr 7, 2015 - 10:54PM

    @Romy: Outsourcing is a “natural” outgrowth of a globalized interconnected world which is based on the notion of economies of scale and scope, among other concepts. This is why, low-tech, low-added value jobs migrated from the US first to Mexico (with NAFTA) and then to China. In the Equation REVENUE – TOTAL COSTS (FIXED + VARIABLE) = PROFIT, if a company can reduce the “labor” component of the cost by moving to a low-cost country (assuming “labor” is a significant component compared to, say, shipping costs of finished goods from China to US and other markets, including China), then wouldn’t you expect the company to outsource to China, ceteris paribus? Now some US companies are insourcing manufacturing and call centers back to the US or other places as China’s labor costs are rising fast. So, in the end, while one may not like outsourcing for various reasons, including personal ones, the rational decision-making wins out. Recommend

  • Rizwan Khan
    Apr 7, 2015 - 11:12PM

    @manish:

    You’re thinking of pakistan in the 1990s. What Indians fail to understand is what an important role pakistan now assumes with its nuclear arsenal. Saudi can’t dictate to a country they’re begging for assistance from. They turn to pakistan for help – if you think their begging is a sign of power, then I fear your views are just steeped in typical indian bias.Recommend

  • woody
    Apr 8, 2015 - 12:38AM

    @Rizwan Khan:

    What Indians fail to understand is
    what an important role pakistan now
    assumes with its nuclear arsenal.

    MMM .. didn’t’ stop Iran, India or Afghanistan from shelling Pakistan – didn’t deter the American’s from using drones. Maybe those nukes aren’t as important as you think?Recommend

  • Romy
    Apr 8, 2015 - 1:09AM

    @yo2da2:
    You are right but here we are talking about IT not manufacturing. Even if we talk about manufacturing we do hear every now & then that the world market is loosing out to Chinese manufacturers. Have we ever done research about these “outsourcing”. Do we know what their labor gets paid, their benefits, rights etc ….. probably NO because we are used to work long hours with impractical deadlines & at last dying of stress. Now let’s drive back to IT. How would India feel if majority of work gets outsourced from India to Philippines. There are words going around in Indian circles about China training it’s manpower in English to take a bulk work of IT. Do we get quality after outsourcing? Igate of India in Canada & Infosys in US have drawn flak for their practices. Because we have a sizable chunk here from India, the guys tell us who gets recruited, how & when and trust me listening to all these tales coming from Mangers mouth really make me think thrice or more. We can go & defend ourselves citing any formulas & theories we want to but the truth remains intact….. No offense please…. Recommend

  • truthbetold
    Apr 8, 2015 - 2:52AM

    There are a lot of bogus recruitment and IT companies run by Indians and Pakistanis in the US. These companies use false data and documents to bring Indians and Pakistanis on H1b visas. The US immigration service and the government have woken up to these tricks by these bogus companies and have been actively cracking down on them.

    I think Humayun was probably one of their clients. He wouldn’t have had any problems returning to the US if he had been working for a recognized and legitimate company.Recommend

  • Np
    Apr 8, 2015 - 9:23AM

    @Rizwan Khan:
    Even now they are throwing loose change (1.5 billion US) and you are willing to send Pakistani soldiers to die in a foreign war. Nothing much has changed.Recommend

  • ajeet
    Apr 8, 2015 - 9:41AM

    If they recruit pakistanis, some of them go boom.Recommend

  • Qamar
    Apr 8, 2015 - 1:55PM

    @Bairooni Haath:

    Great Idea… then all these companies can come to India nad Invest in Benaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai for their IT needs…… we can have many more silicon valleys built here….Well Pakistanis can apply as well…Recommend

  • Tony Singh
    Apr 8, 2015 - 2:34PM

    @Bairooni Haath:
    “Pakistan should make a pact with SA before sending its troops that all Indians must be returned back to India from United States and Pakistani software engineers should be given jobs there….Pakistan should request SA to convey this message to US……….”

    You forgot to add your favourite last line…
    “Or else we will nuke you”Recommend

  • yo2da2
    Apr 8, 2015 - 11:03PM

    @Romy: You make some good points. All those countries you mention are already engaged in IT – including call centers. Besides costs there are other factors to consider. Philippines and India have had a long experience with the English language; it will take China many more years (if not decades) to get up to speed. The eternal verities of capitalism are competition and change. With competition, change with new things (ideas, products, processes) replacing the old are ongoing; therefore adaptation is a necessary and continual process. I’ve read about many Indian IT companies establishing a foothold in China and elsewhere preemptively for such eventuality. (But China is also a huge market in itself.) As an American, when I go shopping for “Made in the US”, it is very difficult to find anything not made in China. There needs to be some “patriotism” in the actions of US companies instead of just seeming to give away the store. But I also understand the motivations of the companies’ executives. General Motors and Ford Motor Company have invested huge sums in Asia, including China and India, as those markets grow while domestic markets are mature and grow very slowly. China is already the largest market for automobiles! Buick and Cadillac are hugely desirable brand names there. (The competitive edge that the advanced countries – and US in particular – have is the value added. The next BIG change will be the self-driving cars which will restart the product life cycle for cars, like HD TV did for television.) .Recommend

  • yo2da2
    Apr 8, 2015 - 11:08PM

    @Np: Pakistanis have to decide what is really important for the country and stick to it. That is the problem with the emotional South Asians (versus, say the Chinese or Singaporeans) – they get to easily distracted (like people with ADHD) by short-term stuff and lose focus on the long-term strategic goals. Recommend

  • Romy
    Apr 9, 2015 - 7:40AM

    @yo2da2:
    You are absolutely right buddy. Anyone who has invested billions “must” reap the benefits. I know west is a mature market. But we are about practices adopted under the garb of change & etc ….. Well this can go endless but you pointed right saying patriotism but i would rephrase that as sensible & business acumen. We know for fact that all most all inventions & discovers take place in West with some Asian exceptions like South Korea & Japan. If you compare these countries they hardly have their guys asking for a chunk of work from other countries. Sometimes I wonder but I know the answer. Even in North America Japanese cars are ruling as I myself drive a Camry. Why? because they stand out. Same goes for every industry. Why don’t we have autos from these countries stand out? But anyways keeping it focused, I would say outsource but sensibly. Don’t let corporate greed & fat bonuses dictate your decisions as I’ve seen it plenty with most of these service providers coming, do some work, getting audited & shown the door. We must seek brilliant minds from all over the world. Anyways it’s was nice talking to a sensible like you. Others are caught in the web of nationality & history….Recommend

  • yo2da2
    Apr 9, 2015 - 9:05AM

    @Romy: Likewise! We are grateful for ET and enlightened news outlets to provide forums of common interest to Pakistani and foreign readers like us. I enjoyed the IT topic as I have many friends and acquaintances associated with it.Recommend

  • readers
    Apr 10, 2015 - 2:40AM

    it’s because our govt does not give loans to students for studying abroad like india china.Recommend

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