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With H-1B visas for the highly skilled in doubt, tech world’s anxious

John Blanding

There are moments in a corporate executive’s life that can seem a bit like kismet. For David Mendels, chief executive of Brightcove Inc., it was when he realized he had a chance to hire Phil Cluff.

In 2014, Cluff was a UK-based software engineer working as the lead architect for the BBC’s project to deliver online video, his resume a checklist of all of the skills needed at Brightcove, a Boston company that helps customers like Time Inc. and the social media platform Snap Inc. post videos on the Internet.

“There aren’t many people like him in the world, and they don’t all become available,” Mendels said. “We brought him over to the US to help build a team for us.”


Cluff moved to the United States in 2014 on a temporary visa, working for the next 18 months to build Bolt, the company’s new media delivery platform. Brightcove, meanwhile, worked to keep Cluff in the country on a permanent basis, spending thousands in visa and attorney fees.

But the efforts came up short: In two lotteries, Cluff failed to obtain an H-1B visa for highly skilled workers. And so last May, shortly after the company unveiled Bolt, Cluff was on a plane back to London, where he now runs a product team for Brightcove.

To Mendels, Cluff is an example of how US immigration laws can hinder the growth of American companies. “We ended up having to hire a five-person team in London around him that I would have preferred to hire in the US,” Mendels said.

As President Trump seeks to clamp down on immigration, the status of white-collar international workers has become a political live wire. During his election campaign, Trump called the H-1B visa, used by many technology companies to hire foreign nationals, a “cheap-labor program” and promised to rewrite visa regulations to focus on hiring American workers first.


And that has left Brightcove, like so many other companies in the Boston area that employ international employees, on edge. The state’s 2.8 percent unemployment rate means that hiring managers are often scrambling to recruit and retain top talent. And Mendels said that competition has become more fierce, with major tech companies like Google and Amazon having set up shop here.

“If you want to go hire someone out of a top engineering school like MIT, by the time you get there, they’ve got five offers from big software companies that are many times larger than us,” he said.

Brightcove’s experience is not unusual for small and mid-size tech companies in Massachusetts.

The company brought on 100 new employees last year, which meant that it needed to expand its talent search abroad. Now, with rumors circulating about a pending executive order that could significantly reduce the number of H-1B visas, the company’s human resources managers have been huddling with their immigration lawyers to determine how to best maintain an increasingly global workforce.

Of the company’s 500 employees, 30 to 40 are foreign-born, said Katie Kulikoski, senior vice president for human resources. An outside immigration attorney helps coordinate their visa applications. And should employees like Cluff find themselves out of luck in the visa lotteries, the lawyer helps with relocation efforts outside of the United States.

Last year, Brightcove applied for H-1B visas for five employees, which cost about $6,000 each in application and attorney fees. But Brightcove didn’t get a single H-1B visa granted in 2016.


The fees add up quickly. “It’s not cheap. If there was an easier alternative, people would be taking it,” Kulikoski said. “Nobody wants to have a huge tranche of their recruitment budget being allocated to processing and legal fees.”

And those funds aren’t spent only on top-tier hires with decades of experience. The company needs to develop a pipeline of talent, including entry-level hires like Sasha Ortha.

Ortha joked that she didn’t pull any punches during her initial internship interview at Brightcove in 2014. The Venezuelan native was completing an electrical engineering degree at Suffolk University and needed to know: If she was hired and proved herself, would the company pay for her visa applications, sponsor her for a green card, and commit to her for the long haul?

“I was pretty straightforward; I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time,” Ortha said.

Kulikoski offered her a full-time position, and Brightcove covered the cost of an “optional practical training” visa, which can range from $400 to $800 and allows foreign students to stay in the country beyond graduation.

Ortha thrived at the company, and the 26-year-old was quickly promoted to a new role as a technical program analyst. Her success led Brightcove to fast-track her application for an H-1B visa, which enables “highly specialized” foreign nationals to work in the United States for six to eight years.

But Ortha wasn’t selected in the lottery last year, and so her visa application will be submitted again this April, one of 10 the company will sponsor.


Employee Sasha Ortha (left) and senior vice president for human resources Katie Kulikoski, at the BrightCove offices in Boston. John Blanding/Globe Staff

The H-1B program includes a highly competitive lottery, and with Citizenship and Immigration Services receiving over 236,000 applications last year, there’s about a one-in-three chance of being selected. Currently, the program’s annual cap is 65,000 visas, with an additional 20,000 available to graduates of US universities with advanced degrees.

But many tech companies are nervous that number could be pared down significantly in the push to hire Americans first.

Mendels said it isn’t that simple, though.

The skill sets that Brightcove and companies like it often require are niche enough — and in demand enough — that there isn’t always a large enough US-born candidate base from which to hire. Hiring international workers can be essential if a company wants to stay competitive.

“I’m flabbergasted that we spend so much time and energy as a society thinking about how to keep out smart people from our country,” Mendels said.

It isn’t just applying for H-1Bs visas on behalf of employees that’s costly. Maintaining them is, too. Transferring an employee with a preexisting H-1B visa can cost nearly as much as a new application, and expediting that process tacks on $1,250.

Extending those visas can cost about $4,000 every three years. Brightcove pays $5,000 to $10,000 in relocation fees to move an employee abroad if the employee doesn’t get an H-1B visa; bringing an employee back to the country on an L-1 transfer visa after a year costs $6,000.


Want to sponsor a green card candidate for permanent residency? The cost goes even higher, to the tune of $15,000.

Brightcove’s costs aren’t just financial: There are also soft costs like the distraction, the time lost from work, and the breaking up of established teams.

“It’s frustrating. I started this thing in America with people that I worked with,” said Cluff, 29, who is now working on Bolt at Brightcove’s London office. “I would have loved to have finished it with those people.”

Janelle Nanos can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.