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January 24, 2000
Techies' deportation hearing begins next week
J M Shenoy
Rajshree Rao had been looking forward to her baby being born in America. A computer programmer at the Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, along with her husband S Venugopal, she had a comfortable life. With the nearly $ 90,000 the couple made -- two times of what most couples in San Antonio earned -- they could afford a babysitter and other amenities. They loved living in San Antonio, known for its spicy cuisine and hot weather reminiscent of summer in Andhra Pradesh.
But now Rajashree and her husband are not sure whether they will be in San Antonio even for the summer. They could not work all through last week after the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided the base and arrested them along with 38 other Indians. They were accused of working in a city and for an organization other than the ones listed on their applications.
The couple is trying to put behind the humiliation of being handcuffed and led into INS vans before scores of American colleagues. But their main concern is the deportation proceedings.
The INS has not indicated what action it would take against the two Houston-based subcontracting firms -- Frontier Consulting Inc and Softech Consulting Inc -- which brought over the programmers from India. Indians own both firms.
Next week, deportation hearings will start against most of the 40 programmers who are out on bails. The Indian ambassador's protest lodged with state department officials and the interview that he gave to Texas newspapers isn't adequate consolation for the programmers.
"We don't know what will happen to us tomorrow," says one, who like most of his colleagues, preferred to remain anonymous.
But the group hopes the regret expressed by Assistant Secretary of State for south Asia Karl Inderfurth and his request for a report from the INS could help their cause.
Rahul V Reddy and Joe De Mott, attorneys for the two firms, and many of those arrested at the Randolph Air Force Base, assert that neither the employees nor the subcontractors have broken the law.
The 40 men and women were arrested on mere technicality, Reddy said.
"Just because they were working in San Antonio, about 200 miles from Houston, did not mean they were not attached to the subcontractors who had arranged for their H1-B visas," he said. "Besides, they came to America as highly skilled workers -- and they were precisely that at Randolph.
"It wasn't that they came to America pretending to be high-tech workers and ended up doing small jobs," he said.
The INS says the two firms might have broken the law by claiming they'd place the workers in Houston, then later shifting them to San Antonio. It calls the alleged scam "body shopping".
But several programmers said they were surprised to know last week that they were supposed to be working in Houston.
"We have been here for nearly for four years," said one programmer. "If the subcontractors broke the law, why were we treated like criminals and subjected to humiliation? Why weren't the subcontractors not contacted?"
Indian Ambassador Naresh Chandra was drawn into the controversy when he told a San Antonio newspaper:
"In India, we are not used to handcuffing decent people. These are not pickpockets, thieves or infiltrators. They are people who are doing their work."
Meanwhile, Thomas Homan, INS assistant district director of criminal investigations, continues defending the handcuffing of the programmers, saying policy required it.
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