High-Tech Braceros Make Their Mark on Silicon Hills

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Austin American-Statesman

When Kaushal Kishore and a taxicab full of Austin techies crossed the border into Mexico this summer, they also crossed a border in time, into a frontier town where history seemed to be repeating itself.

Rewind about fifty-five years. Ciudad Juarez was a depot for “braceros” _ Mexican contract laborers _ as they waited for work permits that would take them to American farms left unmanned by World War II.

Kishore’s story is an Internet era remake of the tale of the braceros, whose two-decade stream into the United States left a permanent imprint on the culture and economy of Texas.

A quirk of immigration law took the 25-year-old engineer to Ciudad Juarez to get his passport stamped at the U.S. Consulate there. But the setting was appropriate. It linked the experience of this high-tech bracero from India _ who helps computer chip producers debug software _ with that of his old economy forebears, who thinned sugar beets with short-handle hoes and picked cucumbers, tomatoes and cotton in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Kishore holds one of the three-year work visas _ called H-1Bs _ used mainly by the tech industry to cope with a shortage of skilled domestic labor. The law of supply and demand brought him to the United States three years ago, as five decades ago it brought the Mexican agricultural workers.

About 420,000 workers on H-1B visas _ slightly below the peak number of braceros in 1956 _ live in the United States. By 2002, the population may grow to 710,000, according to a Georgetown University analysis of a recently enacted federal law that more than doubles the number of new H-1B visas available for the next three years.

Not only does the law allow more foreign workers into the country, it makes it easier for them to stay.

Already, H-1B holders are more than human stopgaps imported for a short period of time. About 25,000 H-1B holders become permanent residents every year, according to the Georgetown University study. Many are Americans-in- waiting _ and some are Central Texans-in-waiting.

Like the braceros, they will leave their mark on the Texas landscape.

On a lawn in North Austin’s Walnut Creek Park, a crew of cricketers measures almost every Saturday morning in “wickets,” the equivalent to baseball strike-outs.

“Wet sari” scenes, part of the subtitled antics of lovers in the latest musicals from Bombay, flicker onscreen at the Wells Branch Discount Cinema every weekend.

And at Swad, the most recent sprout of a crop of Indian fast-food joints, bachelors and young families huddle over plates of idlis, dosas, uttapam and bowls of sambhar _ all staples in the southern part of India.

The evidence is tucked away in unexpected places, behind cultural signposts. But the influx of workers touches Austin _ in its incarnation as Silicon Hills _ more than most metropolitan areas.

An Austin American-Statesman analysis of Department of Labor data shows that in the past six years, tech companies across the country received permission to hire 9,404 foreign workers for jobs based in Austin and Round Rock. Not all came, but because the visas for those already here can be _ and usually are _ renewed for another three years, there are probably about 9,000 high-tech braceros in the area.

Nationwide, about half of the workers with H-1B visas in all occupations come from India, particularly its big cities and Southern states. Among workers in the tech industry, the percentage is about 75 percent.

The United Kingdom sends the next largest contingent, with about 5 percent of all H-1B visas nationwide.

Courtesy of computers, the Austin area has become a mecca for a subset of migrants from middle-class India _ well-educated, young bachelors bearing a culture distinct from the American mainstream.

They come for a variety of reasons, including the spending power gained after dollars have been converted to rupees, the currency of India. But psychology also explains the exodus to the United States.

“It’s a place for self-starters and achievers. The sky’s the limit,” says Santhosh Anandan, a Web applications developer for Dell. He remembers when his plane touched down in Houston, almost like some remember the first glimpse of their life’s love: 2 p.m., August 3, 1998.

America had always been the distant and seemingly unattainable object of Anandan’s desire.

He knew he wanted to come to the United States since he was in high school in the early ’90s But it was against the wishes of his father, the country manager for General Motors in India.

“My dad said, ‘We have enough money. Why do you want to go?’ Even when I took the GRE, they didn’t take me seriously,” the 23-year old said.

But neither the comfort of his family’s three-bedroom flat in the South Indian city of Madras, in a building with luxuries like an elevator, nor their four cars could compete with the allure of the United States. It had a disquieting aura of magic that kept posing a question to Anandan: “What is it that makes this country tick? It’s controlling the whole world.”

It didn’t help dispel the witchcraft that he went four times to see the blockbuster film “Kaadalan” _ which features an MTV-like sequence set in the mythical American West. In it, the voluptuous Nagma, a darling of the South Indian cinema, dances in the middle of a high-noon hanging. Surrounded by Stetson-wearing cowboys, she gyrates to a song that drops the word “Texas” like a linguistic fish-out-of-water amid the rhythms of Tamil, Anandan’s mother tongue.

Of course, Anandan was also influenced by compatriots who had become Midases of the new tech economy in Silicon Valley. There was Sabeer Bhatia, founder of Hotmail. And Vinod Khosla, founder of Sun Microsystems. And Kanwal Rekhi, founder of Cirrus. They had become icons in India.

But the success story that sold Anandan was more obscure. He found it buried in the glossy pages of Femina, a Bombay-based national women’s magazine that he picked up in a restaurant while waiting for a take-out order. The heroine of this tale was a bored Bethesda, Md., housewife, an Indian immigrant who launched a computer company in her basement. As the article tells it, “Kavelle Bajaj, whose only academic qualification is a degree in home science, has set up a multimillion dollar worth Hi Tech company called I-Net in the US.”

“This thing was on my mind,” says Anandan, who still holds onto a brittle, yellowed copy of the story. “That was the moment I decided. I was stunned. She didn’t even know what a computer was.”

So, he came. Not because of a high-tech labor shortage. That simply made it possible. But because America _ the land of opportunity and self-made men (and women) _ was calling.
India’s riches in spices and tea had made it an English colony. Once free, the country made a fierce attempt to break with that past as a source of exports. Ironically, that struggle is why India has emerged as the leading foreign supplier of America’s programming corps.

Carrying out the vision of its first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, independent India created and invested heavily in a network of schools to train engineers who could carry out the task of building the nation. The new country needed bridges, dams, power plants and nuclear readiness. Its colonial wounds _ and the unfolding insecurity of the Cold War _ required that the infrastructure be home-grown.

There was an “urgency to develop indigenous technological capabilities in electronics,” says Paula Chakravarty, a scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego.

The urgency was so great, that respect for the sciences became a deeply ingrained cultural value.

Kishore, of Cadence Design Systems, comes from Vishakapatnam, an eastern port city the size of Austin that is almost an altar to industry. It’s a base for oil, asbestos, gas, shipbuilding and even a little bit of high-tech. Kishore’s memories of childhood include the glow of the blast furnace at the steel plant where his dad, a civil engineer, works.

“You may like it or not, but you do what a job demands,” says Kishore, who saw firsthand how central science was to the state and his own family. “I mean, it’s not like I kill my interest to (be an engineer), but you learn the hard way when you grow up … Study hard, get good grades.”

At heart, Kishore might have liked to be the next Sachin Tendulkar _ the Michael Jordan of cricket. But in India, science had been elevated to the level of duty to country. Little boys deferred other dreams for it. That was partly Nehru’s intent.

The Indian Institutes of Technology _ several copycat MITs created by the nationalist leader in the late 1940s _ and a second tier of recently mushrooming technical colleges have produced a large pool of scientists through the decades. Early on, this brain trust developed microcomputers and as as early as the late 1970s, a computer network.

But the talents of India’s electronic whiz kids were directed mainly to the public sector. Outside of the government, there never was much of a market for them, at least not at home. The socialist state threw out multinational companies like IBM and a centralized economy made it hard for local competitors to flourish. Plus, the vast majority of Indians needed electricity, food and water before computers.

Even with India’s grudging embrace of the free market, starting in 1991, the supply of high-tech labor today still outstrips the domestic demand.

“It is changing very much. Some people are staying back. Some people are even going back,” Kishore says. “But if you have a billion people trying to get the same jobs, it’s not easy.”

Indeed, the country’s new economic policy now promotes exports, including the human variety.

Foreign trade in software _ both the products and their producers _ is the fastest growing sector of the Indian economy and a key part of its development strategy.

Add to that the fact that most middle-class Indians speak English, the language of the New Economy and the tongue they inherited from their colonizers, and you have fertile ground for the crop of high-tech braceros in Austin and elsewhere in America and the world.

Whatever the cause of the influx of foreign workers, the effect has been to make Austin a more cosmopolitan place _ and a more eclectic marketplace. Aside from benefiting new economy giants like Motorola and Trilogy, the migration has given rise to a host of old-fashioned businesses that cater to the needs of displaced Indians.

At Paris Nails, near the Tejano nightclub called Desperado’s in North Austin, a woman named Shenila performs threading, an ancient form of hair removal and the preferred alternative to waxing in South Asia and the Middle East.

MGM Grocers _ the first Indian grocery in Austin _ has occupied every corner of its 2,900 square feet with imports from India, everything from Tata’s Perfumed Castor Hair Oil to DVDs of films from Bollywood (Bombay meets Hollywood). Since its opening in 1987, it has annexed more space twice, and owner Matthew Mathen is about to move to a larger location at Burnet and Anderson Lane.

“The sales have gone up,” he said. “Every day, I’m seeing new people.”

Mathen’s trade in frozen dinners _ a selection of “Curry Classics” entrees including Chicken Biryani, Chicken Moghlai or Lamb Curry _ has been particularly brisk, given the increasing number of young men who patronize his store.

“They don’t have time to cook,” he said. “They are the contract workers, and their workload is very high.”

In 1990, when the U.S. Census Bureau tabulated Austin’s Indian population at 2,883, Mathen had a corner on the market. Today, there are at least five grocery stores that serve the approximately 10,000 Indians that community leaders estimate live here.

If bachelor H-1B holders stock up on the expatriate’s version of Swanson’s, they also converge in the evenings and on weekends at one of the city’s nine Indian restaurants _ eight more than existed a decade ago.

They especially throng Swad and Little Bombay _ laid-back outposts of authenticity, where the chatter is in Tamil, Telegu and a half dozen other Indian languages and the soundtrack is hip-hop Hindi-pop rather than elevator- sitar.

And _ in the world’s best signal of a critical mass of Indians _ Bollywood has arrived in a meaningful way to Austin. A decade ago, the only outlet for the slick, surreal and sexy Indian movies were shows organized by students at the University of Texas, perhaps twice a year.

Today, the Wells Branch Discount Cinema devotes a screen every weekend to the mass-market musicals, full of lip-synching beautiful people, lush backdrops and sometimes a bizarre ubiquity of Tommy Hilfiger and Gap- emblazoned clothing. Another theater, Regal Lake Creek Cinemas, screens Indian films almost every day.

Even as the migrants have put chutney nearly on par with salsa in the Austin area, they too have been changed.

Vijay Sundaresan, a Web architect from Madras, arrived in Cleveland as a biomedical engineering graduate student in 1992. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay. As he put it, he just “wanted to study in the U.S. with 10 of my best friends” and then start his own company, either here or in India.

“I was very focused on my career. I wanted to be an entrepreneur and to make tons of money,” he says. “I told (my wife), ‘You’re not going to have children for five years.'”

But something _ God, Sundaresan would say _ intervened.

A Hindu by birth, Sundaresan became a born-again Christian after studying the Bible. His wife Ammu, a former journalist with All India Radio, was raised as an Indian Catholic, but also became a born-again Christian. They have three children, all born in the American Midwest, and another on the way.

At the directive of Chapter Six of the Old Testament’s Book of Deuteronomy, the Cedar Park couple home schools Jennifer, 6; Rachel, 4; and Joseph, 2. It is one of many ways that they have become alienated from their own relatives and middle-class life in Madras _ one in which women work and children are few, to preserve disposable income.

“Our views on life are so different from our own families,” Ammu Sundaresan says. “They can’t understand why I would stay home and ‘waste my life.’ They say, ‘Why don’t you take some computer classes?'”

Despite the disconnect, when Sundaresan’s H-1B visa expires in March, he and his family might have to carve out a niche in a motherland that has become foreign to them.

They tenant the same limbo as thousands of other visa holders whose applications for green cards are logjammed at the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

From 1992 to 1996, about 30,000 high-tech braceros and their spouses became permanent residents every year. Since then, there has been a precipitous drop in the number of H-1B holders who succeed in the green card process, and wait times for approval have ballooned to an average of 4.6 years.

“We cannot buy a house with the uncertainties ahead of us,” says Sundaresan, who has been in the green card queue for just a couple of months. “We are not just hanging out or anything. We’re establishing a family.”

But hope is not lost, thanks to the law passed by Congress in October. It includes a provision to extend H-1B workers’ stay in America by one-year increments, if their green card applications have been on file for a year. It also made other minor changes to make it easier for the foreign workers to stay.

That is perhaps where the comparison between braceros and their tech counterparts begins to break down.

The immigration concessions resulted from a season of organized clamor and lobbying _ including a $10,000 contribution to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D- Austin, from local H-1B holders. The tech industry was filling campaign coffers. But its foreign workers also seized control of their own fates, in a way that the low-wage Mexican farm hands could not.

The financial muscle even wrested some cultural recognition from the White House. After attending a California fundraiser with Indian-born techies last month, Bill Clinton became the first president to extend an official greeting to American Hindus on Diwali, a religious holiday akin to Christmas in scale.

Still, the American Workforce Competitiveness Act creates more pressure on the green card system than it alleviates. The law hikes the number of new H- 1B visas each year to 195,000 until 2003 _ more than double the number that would have been available. And it exempts all foreign graduates of American universities _ about a fourth of all current H-1B holders _ from the cap. That swells the pool of potential green card aspirants, without truly clearing the backlog at I.N.S., scholars say.

However the law ultimately affects the Sundaresans, they are adaptable.

“Either we’re going to leave or we’re going to stay,” Vijay says.

“We won’t know until it actually happens,” his wife said. “We believe God is in control, and we’ll let it rest in His hands.”

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