We Take Visas

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AS THE NUMBER OF foreign IS workers in the United States grows, so do the challenges facing companies that employ them. For example, at Syntel -- a provider of IT services and e-business solutions -- more than 60 percent of our current U.S. staff consists of foreign workers, almost all within IT. As a result, we are constantly dealing with a major challenge: complying with immigration and naturalization regulations.

For those of you who haven't yet begun to rely heavily on foreign workers, let's briefly review the process: First, a prospective employer must establish that there is a shortage of U.S. citizens to fill a certain type of job. The company then locates a foreign worker and applies for a temporary visa from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for that person. The worker can be hired when the visa is approved. If that employee wishes to remain in the United States after the visa expires, the company needs to file for an extension.

The rules regarding work visas for foreign employees are strict, and the consequences of noncompliance can be steep: significant fines, removal of the affected workers from the country, criminal penalties for officers of the company, even a total ban on hiring workers outside the United States.

In the past, managing immigration requirements at Syntel required huge amounts of time. Our legal, human resources, recruiting and accounting staffs kept track of employee data individually. Each department's process was largely manual, which was not only slow, but there was great potential for inaccuracies that might make it necessary for a valuable employee to suddenly leave the country and a key assignment.

To unify our systems, reduce dependence on manual data entry and ensure compliance with government regulation in both the financial and immigration areas, we recently decided to implement the PeopleSoft enterprise resource planning system. However, we found no commercial software package capable of handling our complex immigration compliance requirements. Instead, after conducting extensive interviews to find out about the workflow in question, IS managers created a system from scratch using the PeopleTools application developer -- a single, integrated development environment that simplifies the application customization process. IS did a tremendous job of designing a system that helped the people doing the work get their work done, as opposed to designing a system that was effective only in theory. Now Syntel can coordinate every phase of the immigration process.

First Things First

The first step in hiring outside the United States is to file a Labor Condition Application (LCA), which provides the INS with notice of the need to hire foreign workers. The LCA is based on labor department surveys that identify shortages in certain professions, and it is valid for a limited period for specific jobs, salary ranges and locations. Syntel's new software module tracks each LCA held by the company to ensure that we know how many employees have been hired under each open LCA and how many slots remain. If an employee is transferred from one location to another, the software moves his or her data to the new location's LCA. It also tracks the expiration date of all LCAs and notifies the legal department when it's time to reapply.

In the meantime, overseas recruitingg offices are interviewing job candidates. The HR department enters selected candidates into the PeopleSoft system, which subsequently tells the legal department to apply for an H-1B visa for that employee. (The H-1B is a temporary visa category for nonimmigrant workers.) The information required when filing for the visa, such as the degree certificate and passport, is collected outside the system, but the software manages the numerous documents that must be filed as well as all communications with the INS.

The software keeps track of the status of each application, notifies appropriate staff members of steps that need to be taken and generates reports that let managers know when new employees will be available to work on projects. In the past it was difficult to determine the status of a worker's visa application at any given point; now a member of the HR department, for example, can log in and check the situation, even while the application is in the hands of another department. When an employee's visa is approved, the information in the immigration module is added to the PeopleSoft human resources module. The system will not move an applicant's information to the employment rolls until all of the necessary documentation has been completed.

Application Accepted -- Now What?

The rules don't become any simpler after a foreign employee comes to the United States, and as a result, neither does the software. Once the INS has allowed us to take on a foreign worker, it is up to us to make sure that worker maintains a valid visa. Employees with H-1B visas are classified as nonimmigrant workers, which means they must leave the United States when the visa is up. H-1B visas are issued for one to three years. The immigration module keeps track of expiring visas and notifies the legal department in time to apply for an extension. The INS can take four to eight weeks to process the application, so we like to file for extensions three to four months in advance. However, people with H-1B visas often decide to apply for permanent residency once they arrive. Because there is a six-year limit on the total life of an H-1B visa and it can take five years for the INS to grant permanent resident status, the immigration module must notify the legal department to file for residency toward the end of the employee's first year in the United States. That process involves 20 to 40 discrete steps, each requiring us to contact the INS and file certain documents or records. The immigration module tracks which steps have been completed and which need to be taken at any given time. The system has improved the legal staff's productivity by identifying all employees for whom a certain step needs to be completed, so the steps can be completed together in a batch. It also tracks the process of applying for visas for an employee's spouse and children.

The immigration module also keeps track of other, less common types of visas. For example, sometimes the company transfers an employee from an overseas operation to the United States for a specific project or hires foreign students educated at a U.S. university who decide to remain in the country for what is called "practical training." The module tracks expiration dates of these visas, which are normally good for one year. It also manages the new visas created for Canadian and Mexican citizens as part of North American Free Trade Agreement legislation.

The project has already paid for itself. The new immigration module saves enough time every year to free up many staff members for more creative tasks. Managers now can avoid missing a paperwork deadline and losing a key employee because of visa problems. There's irony -- or elegance -- in the fact that the insatiable need for IS professionals is what created the visa tracking problem, and those same professionals' skills enabled us to automate the process of hiring them.

This story, "We Take Visas" was originally published by CIO.

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