When Kumar Rajesh was rushed to Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville, doubled over by kidney stones, he might have expected a fruit basket or a get-well wish from his boss.
Instead, he got a lecture about how the time lost reflected badly on his work record.
Rajesh, then 24, was a systems analyst employed by Tata Consultancy Services, an Indian firm that contracts with U.S. companies to provide computer experts.
He and more than a half-million other immigrants, many from India, are at the crest of a wave of high-tech foreign workers who have surged into the United States over the past decade at the urging of the computer industry and its lobbyists under a program created by Congress in 1990.
It's an effort that has given birth to a multimillion-dollar industry, shuttling high-tech workers for a lucrative fee from continent to continent. Critics call the companies that find the workers "body shops."
They say the program, known as H-1B, stems from a patchwork of immigration laws and policies triggered by special interests and fueled by a vast pool of unwitting immigrants in pursuit of the American dream.
"Since I was treated like a bonded slave, I didn't have any other alternative except leaving the company," Narayanasamy Sekar wrote in a personal plea to a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge to explain why he left the company that brought him here.
An investigation by The Sun, in which hundreds of court records and government documents were reviewed and dozens of recruits interviewed, shows that for many foreigners, the promises they hear on the streets of Bombay and New Delhi soon give way to harsh reality. Many who came in pursuit of a dream now find themselves indentured servants.
The investigation found:
* In violation of federal law, visa holders often collect a small fraction of the salaries they've been promised while doing make-work projects and refining computer skills.
* If workers quit, they are frequently sued by employers claiming damages of $30,000 or more.
* Workers who challenge employers are routinely threatened with being sent back to their homeland.
* Body shop operators regularly bill U.S. companies at rates three to four times the salary being paid to their foreign workers.
* U.S. workers have been displaced by less costly foreign labor contracted out to H-1B visa holders.
Court records show the visa holders are recruited by contractors, then brought to the United States for assignment. If no job is waiting, the worker may be placed by another body shop, which gets a percentage of the fee.
Revenues have soared for visa vending companies created to bring in temporary foreign workers. Mastech Corp. and Syntel Inc. reported combined revenue of well over a half-billion dollars in 1998, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Immigration lawyers collect fees of $2,000 to $2,500 for each H-1B application. With a limit of 115,000 H-1B visas per year, that represents some $230 million a year in potential legal fees.
"It's the bread and butter for a lot of people," said Kenneth Rinzler, an immigration lawyer in Washington, who said he advises his clients against using H-1B visas.
The program that brought these workers to the United States was created by Congress in 1990 in response to pleas that there weren't enough American workers to fill certain high-skill jobs. The category was included in the 1990 law that reshaped the country's immigration policies.
Despite repeated warnings of a critical shortage of high-tech workers, some immigration experts say that there is no crisis and never was one.
"The evidence is just not there," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. He said the program lets employers short-circuit the usual rules of a free-market economy, in which wages are driven by demand.
Krikorian said the program enables companies to obtain high-tech workers at a discount. Companies are willing to pay fees and lawyers, he said, because in the long term, foreign workers save them money on salaries and benefits.
In effect, Krikorian said, the U.S. government provides a subsidy in the form of visas.
Responding to industry warnings of an impending high-tech crisis, Congress voted in 1998 to temporarily double the number of skilled workers allowed into the country on visas. Moves are under way to allow in even more workers and to make the increase permanent.
"Once again, the cap on H-1B visas is preventing American companies from hiring the best and the brightest workers from throughout the world," William T. Archey of the American Electronics Association told a congressional committee late last year.
Behind the H-1B movement are AEA and another industry group, the Information Technology Association of America, headed by Harris Miller, who once served on the staff of the House committee again being asked to raise the ceiling on the program.