DOD Plan Would Restrict Immigrants in Computer Industry

The recent proposal by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to restrict non-citizens from working in some parts of the computer industry sends a loud and unexpected message to the South Asian community: You may be valuable immigrants, but you're still outsiders.

Forget that non-citizen Silicon Valley tech workers rose to leadership positions in more than 40 percent of all start-ups, and in doing so, changed how the world uses technology. Peter Nelson, the Pentagon's deputy director for personnel security, says that the plan, which could go into effect before summer, is to "ensure that any person accessing unclassified but sensitive DOD IT systems be reliable and trustworthy." And that's that.

South Asian tech workers on H1-B visas (temporary visas for highly specialized workers) used to be model American Dreamers -- foreign-born, contributing workers on an upwardly mobile trajectory ending in assimilation. But in post 9-11 America, yesterday's model immigrant is today's security threat.

The DOD security plan would cover a work force that accounts for one-third of all federal civilian employees. Targeted jobs include programmers, code-writers and people handling e-mail systems. In Silicon Valley, the plan could affect thousands, since many high-tech private firms employing foreign nationals are finding new markets in defense contracts.

Most immigrant tech workers are not new to America. Recruited engineers, scientists and students from South Asia were offered easy visas specifically to advance our military technology during the Cold War, to keep ahead of the Soviet threat. Decades later, the high-tech private sector also saw a need for foreign workers to fill jobs and helped create the H1-B visa program in 1990 for its own growth. Subsequently, foreign workers moved on to embrace an American lifestyle and raise American families without becoming U.S. citizens.

An unanticipated side-effect of the influx of thousands of foreign workers to Silicon Valley to create our tech Manifest Destiny is that they profoundly changed our cultural landscape. In the past five years in Silicon Valley, H1-B workers and their families found a way to both integrate into American civic life and retain their cultural integrity. Cricket games sprung up in local parks. Bazaars became the common ground for people to buy fresh vegetables, inspiring Farmer's Markets that attracted a range of shoppers. A new community was defining life in Silicon Valley.

The Silicon Valley South Asian innovators' list looks like a "Who's Who" of technology leaders. Vinod Khosla started Sun Microsystems; Sabeer Bhatia created Hotmail; Chandra Shekar started Exodus, which pioneered the idea of web hosting. All were born in India and came to the United States on visas.

"Without a doubt, we have proven our commitment to this country," says Murali Devankonda, a former H1-B visa holder who recently received his green card after seven years. "Our reliability and trustworthiness should not be questioned."

Without passing a test on U.S. presidential minutiae, South Asian working families became "Silicon Valley citizens" by virtue of their social and economic contributions. But citizenship is not about contributions, as Latinos, many of whom still feel like outsiders after generations in the United States, have long known. It's about bureaucracy, papers and politics.

The defense department announcement could not have come at a worse time for South Asian foreign workers, who make up 40 percent of the estimated 710,000 H1-B workers in the country. They were the first to feel the recession, as the high-tech industry shed some 300,000 jobs nationwide. Since their employers were their immigration sponsors, with loss of employment many were forced to leave the country.

The need for foreign-born, highly skilled workers hasn't gone away, even with the recession. That's because U.S. schools are still not graduating enough high-tech engineers. Money from an H1-B visa fee is currently used for training programs for American workers. President Bush says that the training programs aren't doing what they intended -- preparing American workers to replace non-citizen Indian and Chinese engineers. In his 2003 budget, the visa fee money would be used to speed up the "green card" process.

Immediately following Sept. 11, South Asians faced discrimination and hate crimes as an American public saw turbans and dark skin as terrorist characteristics. In the past few months, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission covering Silicon Valley reports 40 filings of racial discrimination charges in Silicon Valley workplaces. "The amount of charges we have gotten recently is unprecedented -- we hardly ever got charges from these communities, " says EEOC Regional Attorney William Tamayo.

The Silicon Valley South Asian community, comprised heavily of H1-B visa holders, met the racism with patriotism -- organizing American solidarity rallies and collecting funds for the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center.

Now, six months after 9-11, questioning the loyalties of South Asian immigrants has grown from a knee-jerk response by a few reactionaries to the official position of the Pentagon. That means the next "Who's Who of High-Tech" may not come from Silicon Valley or even the United States, but from new high-tech centers being born around the world -- India, Singapore, perhaps even Canada. Places that might respect the contributions of their foreign innovators.

Raj Jayadev,, is the editor of, the voice of young workers, writers and artists in Silicon Valley.


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