Two New Jersey IT services firms allegedly used shell businesses in two small Iowa towns-Coon Rapids and Clive-as part of an elaborate H-1B visa fraud scheme that began to unravel Feb. 11 with the arrests of 11 individuals in seven states. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the scheme involved hiring college-educated foreign workers to allegedly fill high-tech jobs in Iowa when, in fact, the workers were sent to the East and West coasts while being paid the lower prevailing Iowa wage rate.
In other cases, the DOJ claims, foreign workers were recruited and H-1B visas were obtained for nonexistent jobs or the workers were placed in jobs and locations not previously certified by the Department of Labor, replacing qualified American workers and violating prevailing wage laws.
In multiple indictments revealed by the DOJ Feb. 12, the investigation seems to center on Vision Systems Group of South Plainfield, N.J., and Praveen Andapally, identified as president of VenturiSoft, also based in South Plainfield. The other indictments include Vishnu Reddy, who was identified as president of Pacific West of Santa Clara, Calif.
U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker said at a Feb. 12 press conference that the indictments were “just the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to U.S. visa fraud. “This is an enforcement effort that points to a significant vulnerability in our visa process, and we’re trying to close these loopholes and to take away the incentive to conduct these fraudulent schemes,” Whitaker said.
Vision Systems Group faces charges of one count of conspiracy and eight counts of mail fraud and is looking at $7.4 million in forfeitures. Andapally also faces one conspiracy count, six counts of mail fraud, three wire fraud counts and two counts of making a false claim on an immigration matter. Reddy is charged with various conspiracy, mail and wire fraud counts.
Each conspiracy count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Mail and wire fraud carry maximum sentences of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while false statements to immigration officials can involve up to 10 years of prison time and a $250,000 fine.
Vision Systems Group stated in numerous documents submitted to federal authorities that it established a Coon Rapids branch office in 2003, but Coon Rapids Mayor Keith Dorpinghaus told the Daily Times Herald of Carroll, Iowa, “I know they had an office in town a couple years ago, but that’s about it. I never met anybody from the company.”
Doug Carpenter, president of the Coon Rapids Development Group, told the Times Herald, “There seems to be a general lack of knowledge about the company and office here. It seems to have been a mail drop, more or less.”
Andapally’s VenturiSoft lists Clive as a “contact” office on its Web site, while Reddy’s Pacific West maintains no apparent Web site. A Web search for the company does reveal, however, a Pacific West office in Urbandale, Iowa.
Repeated calls to all three companies were not returned.
H-1B: A Favorite of American Tech Companies
A favorite of American technology companies, the H-1B program is a temporary work visa program allowing American companies and universities to employ foreign guest workers who have the equivalent of a U.S. bachelor’s degree in a job category that is considered by the USCIS (U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) to be a “specialty occupation.”
The idea is to help companies hire foreign workers on a temporary basis when there is not a sufficient qualified American work force to meet those needs. H-1B visa winners can work in the United States for three years, with an option for an additional three years.
Silicon Valley has repeatedly urged Congress to raise the H-1B cap, which is currently set at 65,000 visas per fiscal year, but lawmakers have resisted, citing concerns over fraud in the H-1B program.
In October 2008, a USCIS report found that the H-1B program has more than a 20 percent violation rate. The fraud identified in the report included jobs not located where employers claimed, H-1B visa holders not being paid the prevailing wage, forged documents, fraudulent degrees and “shell businesses.”
Even before the report was issued, Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Bernie Sanders of Vermont were seeking reform of the H-1B visa program. A bill introduced in the 110th Congress by Grassley and Durbin would require employers to make a good-faith effort to hire American workers first. Employers would also have to show that the H-1B worker would not displace an American worker.
The bill, likely to be reintroduced in the new Congress, would require employers to advertise job openings on a Department of Labor Web site before submitting an H-1B application. In addition, the bill would give the Department of Labor a mandate to conduct random audits of any company that uses the H-1B program and would require annual audits of companies with more than 100 employees that have 15 percent or more of those workers on H-1B visas.
“This is about protecting the American worker,” Grassley said in a statement accompanying the bill. “We’re closing loopholes that employers have exploited by requiring them to be more transparent about their hiring, and we’re ensuring more oversight of these visa programs to reduce fraud and abuse. A little sunshine will go a long way to help the American worker.”