The YouTube Celebrity Taking the H-1B Fight Public
When he uploaded his first YouTube video, there was no way Kumar could have expected that he’d become a public face of H-1B visas: an advocate—and a truth-teller—for a way of life he can barely tolerate.
Alexis Fitts is Backchannel’s senior editor.
On his channel, Kumar Exclusive, Kumar serves as an everyman narrator of the experience of recipients of the coveted H-1B skilled worker visa, which allows foreign workers to fill technical jobs in America. His dispatches offer both user-friendly how-tos (how to find a job, how to avoid scams, how to win at an American-style interview) and warnings (tales of abusive bosses, short-term contracts, employees faking resumes to win visas, and companies that use lies to tempt foreign workers to the West). On YouTube, he’s amassed a small group following, whose members regularly watch his dispatches to gain practical advice for securing their spots as technical workers abroad.
Kumar’s first video was an afterthought—something he made on his lunch break. He’d left the low-slung office building where he worked processing data, sat in his car, and filmed with his cell phone on the dashboard. Quickly, he learned two things: There was an audience for his videos; he loved making them. It was also a distraction from his life on said visa, where he spends his time circling the country in search of short-term jobs that pay crap wages. His wife doesn’t like his hobby; she worries it’ll hurt his visa renewal. His friends have pointed out the people that threaten him, regularly, in the comments section.
None of this has stopped Kumar from filming thousands of videos. After all, he tells me, what else is he supposed to do?
“I don’t sleep, Alexis,” he says.
In a way, Kumar’s life is one big, messy juxtaposition. Our interview is yet another example of this. He’s eager to talk to me about the crappiest parts of the H-1B visa. Then again, our calls are frequently interrupted, because Kumar is looking for his next gig and needs to pick up call waiting in case it’s a recruiter.
By the time he got his H-1B visa, Kumar had been trying to enter the program for almost a decade. H-1B visas—which are granted each year to just 85,000 recipients, who hail predominantly from India and China—are tough to get; demand far outweighs supply. Though his bachelor’s degree was in literature, Kumar went back to school to earn a technical degree that would make him eligible for the program. Back in India, he’d been laid off from his government job when he received the news: His visa application had been approved.
The visa was tied to a job in New Jersey. The company would sponsor him and pay him a starting salary of $55,000 a year. In the summer of 2008, Kumar’s employer sent a plane ticket and he boarded a flight to Newark, leaving his wife and young son with his mother-in-law.
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It felt like a fresh beginning. But quickly, he realized, he’d been unaware of the fine print. That job in New Jersey wasn’t quite a job—it was a project that would last for an uncertain amount of time. On paper, H-1Bs are tied to a specific company, making changing jobs or advancement difficult. (That’s one of the reasons the more flexible Optional Practical Training visa, or OPT, has become more popular.) But in practice, H-1B recipients are responsible for ensuring their continued employment, with jobs that could end at any moment.
Reading Kumar’s resume from his time in the United States, it would seem like he was working as a spy, or running from the law. In the 10 years he’s lived in America, he’s held jobs in over a dozen different cities. In 2010 alone he worked in North Carolina, Montana, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. (The project in Massachusetts lasted just 36 hours.) Eventually, he developed a system: He’d roll into town and stay in a motel while he looked for a more permanent place to live.
Kumar’s first job lasted just a few months. He picked up another project, this time in Maryland. He stayed in a motel for a week while he looked for housing, eventually decamping to the home of an Indian acquaintance, where he paid $700 a month for a room in the basement. When that job ended, he found another in Pennsylvania. He found himself criss-crossing through a strange country, whose small towns were proving trying.
The next year, he returned to India for surgery. But his visa required that he return to America within a few weeks, before he’d fully recovered. He was on bed rest, staying with a friend in Michigan, when he picked up his next contract—this time in North Carolina. He packed up his van and drove. Kumar was lonely; he was in pain. He cried for most of the trip.
By 2011, he’d saved up enough money for his wife and sons to join him. (That’s right: He now had two sons; his second son was born during the years he was working abroad.) Eventually, Kumar settled on the environs of Rochester, which is when he started commuting. He was hesitant to uproot his family for his erratic schedule, so he found himself driving wherever he got a project.
On Sunday evenings he’d drive 375-miles to a small Rhode Island city from Rochester. During the week he’d stay in a motel, and then dart off on Friday evenings for the trip back home. Another commute, this time to Ohio, was grueling enough that he thought about uprooting his family. But his manager was elusive on how long the job would last. His family stayed put.
Kumar says that the videos were a natural progression from his daily life. Despite his problems, Indian acquaintances often asked him for dispatches on his life in America. Once he started filming the videos, Kumar found that he had lots to say. His earliest videos are filled with practical advice. In one, titled “[sic] How to Get First Job,” he gives basic advice. (“Your resume is not your autobiography, if you put everything in the resume then what do you speak of in the interview?”) In another, called “Work Culture in America,” Kumar advises on how to get along with colleagues who might be annoyed by being around a foreigner. Over the years, his videos have become more controversial. He warns prospective visa recipients on what to avoid: fake job postings, lawyers who run away with H-1B money, and vendors who try to convince immigrants that fees should come out of their own pocket. He considers himself, in many ways, a truth teller.
Over the course of more than a thousand videos, Kumar’s production quality has improved a bit. Instead of speaking from memory, he now types up his points and reviews them off of a sheet of paper. He still films in his car or office, while pointing the camera at himself, selfie-style. Sometimes he films videos solely intended to delight. Last month, a Kumar video titled “[sic] The Beauty of America in fall season, NY,” showed a lake surrounded by trees with brilliant orange and red leaves.
In his YouTube bio, Kumar writes that the “highest ambition for any Indian” is coming to America, learning from the West, and returning back to India to change the system. And, as Kumar is the first to point out, without the H-1B program, he never would’ve gotten the chance to come. But that experience has been grueling. His kids, however, are thriving in American school. He’s not like other Indian parents, he tells me. He doesn’t force his kids to study; he doesn’t care if they become doctors. His oldest son, who is in seventh grade, likes basketball and dreams of going pro. He thinks adjusting to life back in India would be hard for them.
At one point, when his wife’s visa expired, Kumar suggested that she fake her resume and apply for an H-1B. Unlike her husband, she decided it wasn’t worth the hassle.
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