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Vicky Ward Headshot

Pity the Poor Englishman in Manhattan

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My English friend was worried. "I guess the next step is getting American-accent lessons," she said over dinner the other night.

She is a peer of mine -- we were at Cambridge together -- and she has wound up in New York working in a senior position for an American bank on Wall Street. We frequently joke that she must have done something appalling to be punished for her timing. She arrived in New York in September, since when she has hardly had time to think. But her point about having to get an American accent has a serious premise.

She -- like most of my British friends here -- is furious at the new protectionist amendments to the administration's stimulus bill. The changes to the law will not only prohibit free trade but will severely limit the number of H-1B visas given to "exceptional foreigners" to work in banks that have taken funds from the government's Troubled Asset Relief Program.

That means that Britons who were due to start work here later this year will have their job offers rescinded.

So much for Gordon Brown's notion of a "global solution" that he's been busy foisting on President Obama -- to a noticeably cool reception here.

Ever since I've lived in New York, I've watched English compatriots come and go. They've worked and partied more intensely than they knew they were capable of -- and Manhattan has embraced them as it welcomes anyone who wants to live with the ferocity of a lion.

Now, thanks to the amendment, any jobs will go to Americans. The ideal of American meritocracy seems to be dying along with the economy.

Another British friend, also senior on Wall Street, is furious. "To do this is un-American. It's uneconomic," he fumed, noting his bank will probably still have to pay the new hires their signing-on fees -- a waste of money as it can't give them a job.

And for those foreigners who already have H1-B visas? I have a cautionary tale. A 30-year-old British banker at Bank of America on an H1-B visa was told he'd be promoted, but was then fired, and left with not enough money to get his belongings back to the UK.

American friends I told rolled their eyes. "We sympathise about the protectionism point but not the firing point," said one. "This is America. You get hired. You get fired. Get over it."

This article was originally published by the London Evening Standard