A Shadow in the Valley

The region's newest immigrants are feeling the effects of September 11

Should you visit Silicon Valley anytime soon, stay alert. There are so many pendulums reversing course around here that you could get smacked clear to Seattle. It's almost funny, for example, that venture capitalists now practically demand six quarters of profits and a Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award before they'll fund a seed round. But there's nothing amusing about an about-face that could threaten one of the coolest things about Silicon Valley: the region's ethnic diversity and tolerance.

For decades here, brains and hard work--not race or class--have been the key to success. Tens of thousands of immigrants, particularly from India and China, have been valuable employees and have helped launch hundreds of companies, including Yahoo! (YHOO ) and Sun Microsystems (SUNW ). Their friends and families have enriched our culture with restaurants, shops, houses of worship, even cricket leagues. One Sunnyvale (Calif.) area is so packed with Indian eateries and other shops that locals fondly call it "Gandhinagar," or Gandhi Town.

But skilled immigrants are experiencing a wrenching shift. Just a year ago, tech execs were crying more, more, more! They said they couldn't stay competitive unless they hired more immigrants--since our own schools weren't producing. They pleaded for, and won, an increase in temporary H1-B visas from 115,000 to 195,000. (Some 138,000 had been approved by July 25, 2001, and typically more than half go to tech.) But even as they lobbied for the increase, layoffs were sweeping through Dot-commia, and within a few months even the biggest tech companies were cutting all kinds of workers by the thousands.

The H1-B situation is complex and controversial. Critics, for example, charge that many companies embrace it to avoid retraining older workers. Whatever your opinion, there's no doubt the economy's demise has left thousands of H1-B workers in a pickle. Without a job they are "out of status," and must find new employee sponsors or leave. Indian business leaders say up to 2,000 Indians have returned home in recent months. Storefronts of Gandhinagar now are plastered with "For Sale" signs for cars, stereos, and other items sellers need to unload fast. Says Kailash Joshi, president of The Indus Entrepreneurs organization: "H1-B visas were designed with only upside in mind."

It's unfortunate that we invited thousands of new immigrants here just in time to experience the economic hangover of our big Internet party. But it's downright tragic that since September 11 a few ignorant bigots have been harassing some of them and others based on their looks, dress, or last names.

As the year dawned, Aman Singh, 27, had a thriving cab business in Sunnyvale. Then the tech slowdown hit. "I'm getting so many calls," even from H1-B programmers who need work, he says, but he can't offer any. The drop-off in air travel has idled half his 30 cabs. Most depressing is that Singh recently had to summon the police when a group of white men started menacing one of his turban-wearing Sikh drivers. The cops arrived in time.

In the post-September 11 world, we realize a paradigm shift involves a lot more than a new button on a browser. So do our immigrants. "When there is fear and uncertainty, there will be insecure people who need to vent anger," sighs Lata Krishnan, co-founder of chip company Smart Modular Technologies Inc.

Fortunately, that minority is still outnumbered by the open-minded and good-hearted: Krishnan heads a local foundation originally formed to send resources and technology back to India. It has temporarily suspended that activity so that it can raise $1 million for the children of victims of the September 11 attack.

Harassers, what have you done for your country lately?

By Joan O'C. Hamilton

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