As Congress negotiates its biggest immigration overhaul in decades, new numbers obtained by this newspaper reveal a stunning imbalance in a program that admits highly skilled immigrants to the United States, often for Silicon Valley jobs: More than 70 percent of those special visa holders who entered the country in 2011 were men.
The long-overlooked disparity is beginning to attract attention on Capitol Hill, where activists demanded Monday that the federal government take a closer look at whether U.S. visa policy discriminates against women.
The numbers are especially striking because women now outnumber men in America's professional workforce, although they continue to lag in the engineering professions that make up a large number of the H-1B program for temporary immigrants.
"More men are coming simply because companies prefer to hire the men over the women," said Karen Panetta, a Tufts University computer engineering professor who called attention to the gap Monday at a hearing in the U.S. Senate. Panetta was testifying on behalf of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, an association that represents thousands of Bay Area and Silicon Valley workers.
Corporate hiring practices, outdated U.S. visa policies and entrenched gender discrimination in immigrants' home countries are all contributing to the disparity. The hearing marked the first time this year that lawmakers specifically addressed how reform of the immigration system will affect women.
While the Obama administration came under fire at the hearing for not revealing how many men and women hold H-1B visas, the nation's centerpiece program for highly skilled workers, the data requested by the Bay Area News Group provided the scope of the imbalance: The U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics recorded 347,087 male H-1B visa holders entered the country during the 2011 fiscal year compared to 137,522 women. The data is imperfect because it includes many H-1B immigrants traveling to the United States after visits to their home countries, not just first-time arrivals.
But the H-1B divide tells only part of the story of immigrant women's plight in the American workplace: Among professional and management workers, about 67,000 immigrant men and only 39,000 immigrant women earned green cards last year for permanent U.S. residency, a 63-37 percent gender imbalance in a country where women hold 51.5 percent of professional and management jobs, according to annual visa statistics and the Department of Labor.
The United States actually welcomes more foreign women each year than men, but nearly 60 percent of the women were not working at the time they earned their residency -- many were homemakers who arrived through marriage or other family relationships.
That's the case for Bay Area immigrant wives such as accountant Anna Szar of San Francisco and computer engineer Mamtha Kashyap of Santa Clara, both of whom have university degrees but are banned from working in the United States because of the type of visas they hold.
"This country is so full of opportunities, but there's nothing I can do," said Kashyap, 23, who came from India because her husband, also a computer engineer, was sponsored for a job on a temporary H-1B visa. Unlike family-based visas, H-1Bs must be sponsored by the companies that hire the worker. The work visa lasts for three years, but can be renewed for another three, and many visa holders apply for permanent residency -- green cards -- while they are here.
It was clear from the start that her husband, not Kashyap, would get the H-1B.
That meant she had to come on a "dependent" visa for spouses, the H-4, which prohibits her from working. Kashyap said she spends her days volunteering at the library, learning how to cook new dishes and crocheting in front of the TV.
"I hate to say this, but the women in Saudi Arabia have more rights than the spouses, the wives of H-1B visa workers. It's inhuman the way we treat them," said Stanford Law School's Vivek Wadhwa, testifying earlier this year to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. "What country is this that brings high-skill immigrants in, but doesn't give them equal rights?"
Szar, from Poland, also spends her time volunteering, mostly taking photographs for women's organizations in San Francisco. But the 28-year-old university-trained accountant said she would be working if she could.
And unless Congress changes the laws this year to allow her to get a job, she and her computer engineer husband are likely to move back to Europe, where they can both work freely in any European Union country.
"I love it here. I would stay, but I need to have some income," Szar said.
Silicon Valley is one of the biggest hubs for recruiting H-1B workers, and prominent valley voices are trying to persuade lawmakers to allow more of their spouses to work. But activists such as Panetta said the H-4 visa is only the most obvious example of a much broader gender imbalance in America's immigration system -- one that's a reflection not just of U.S. law, but also of business hiring practices, the industries themselves -- especially computer science -- and the more patriarchal cultures of the countries that send emigrants here.
Panetta told senators Monday they should "set aside" reform legislation until the federal government has a better understanding of how many women are getting work-based visas.
"They have been stonewalling us," she said in written testimony. "It's a simple question: How many women get H-1B visas? We are still waiting on our Freedom of Information Request. But it's a scandal that we even had to file one."