Swetal Shah

Merkle, a marketing technology company based in Columbia is one of many companies that depend on a foreign high tech workers that are in the country using special working visas. These visas are controversial and could be part of immigration reform. Swetal Shah, senior technology leader, is in the U.S. using the visa. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / July 23, 2014)

Merkle Inc. builds more than 1,000 complex computer models each year for marketing clients who want to know more about their customers' behaviors and preferences, and that requires skilled manpower the company's recruiters struggle to find.

The Columbia marketing company hires 300 people domestically each year for positions with titles such as business system analyst and solution architect, but to meet its demands, it also must look overseas to places like China. A "minimal" recruiting effort there produces thousands of qualified applicants that Jim Foley, Merkle's chief people officer, said are less plentiful in the United States.

Merkle is among dozens of companies and institutions in Maryland that rely on a controversial visa program to bring skilled workers to U.S. soil — others include Millennial Media, Ciena Corp., Micros Systems, Laureate Education and Sourcefire, according to government data. Maryland companies, universities and research institutions are sponsoring nearly 12,000 foreign workers through what is known as the H-1B visa program.

But tech industry advocates say those are no simple hires, requiring thousands of dollars in legal fees and at least six months of lead time, with no certain payoff as companies nationwide share 85,000 visas allotted in a lottery each April. They say reforms are needed to align the immigration system with an increasingly global labor market — reforms similar to those that freed academics from the visa cap, though not from a burdensome application process.

Still, critics argue the program undercuts U.S. wages and only helps to encourage companies to shift labor offshore.

"The whole thing is so unrealistic and does not comport with reality and the real practical world of technology, which is so volatile and moves at lightning fast speed," said Sheela Murthy, an immigration attorney and president of the Murthy Law Firm in Baltimore. "I think it comes from an inherent distrust that we couldn't possibly [lack Americans] to do those jobs."

The visas argument could be in the background of larger discussions about border security and how to handle a surge of immigrant children entering the country. President Barack Obama said last month he would pursue executive action on immigration reform.

According to data provided to The Baltimore Sun through a Freedom of Information Act request, slightly more than half of the visas went to Tata Consultancy Services, India's largest IT services company that has an office in Rockville. Tata officials did not respond to requests for an interview.

After that, the largest numbers went to educational and research institutions such as the University of Maryland and the National Institutes of Health.

The rest are divided among many well-known tech and corporate names across the region, mostly for work in systems analysis — half a dozen at city firms Millennial Media and Videology, about two dozen at Laureate and Micros, 40 at Merkle and 100 at TEKsystems, an IT staffing and services firm in Hanover.

None of those companies, besides Merkle, agreed to make officials available for interviews about the visa program.

But Merkle's Foley and others said the visas are vital for meeting workforce needs, and thus demand for products and services.

Systems analysts and other high-tech jobs require bachelor's or master's degrees. While efforts are continuing to boost college enrollment in science and technology fields, it can take workers years to gain the proper qualifications for some jobs.

On April 1 every year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers up H-1B visas for positions to begin no earlier than the start of the federal fiscal year Oct. 1. Although it can be tricky for many companies to plan so specifically more than six months in advance, the demand is nonetheless crushing — the agency received 172,500 applications for the visa allotment this April 1, meaning slightly less than half of the applications were approved in a lottery to winnow the list.

"It was basically a coin flip this year," said Justin Storch, manager of agency liaison for the Council for Global Immigration, a Virginia-based advocate for employment-based immigration issues. "That causes a lot of problems as far as predictability within a work force."

There are plenty of hurdles before that point. Companies are required to advertise open positions to ensure they can't be filled by American citizens. And the government fees to file visa petitions can reach as much as $5,000 per visa, and that's not counting the $2,000 to $3,000 in legal fees for lawyers to prepare applications, Murthy said.

"It's an investment for sure," said Ann Nickels, a spokeswoman for MedStar Health, which is sponsoring nearly five dozen visa recipients, mostly physicians and surgeons. "It's a long-term proposition."

The process requires planning at least six months in advance, if not further, and any changing details — such as the worker's responsibility or exact work location — can restart the process. The visas last for three years and can be extended another three years.

"You don't undertake H-1B sponsorship lightly," said Amy Ramirez, director of international scholar and student services at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. "It's a time-consuming process."

Officials at both that university and the Johns Hopkins University have offices devoted to the intense application processes for H-1B visas as well as other types, such as the J-1, used for foreign workers in programs that promote cultural exchange. At Hopkins, 19 people work in a unit dedicated to immigration-related issues, with four of them dedicated to H-1B processing and another two to three spending some time on the visas, said Jennifer Kerilla, director of international services at Hopkins.