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Irrational Immigration

By Parthiv Parekh Email By Parthiv Parekh
May 2009
Irrational Immigration

“Don’t we live in a great country,” goes the joke. “If you are late paying your charge card bill, you incur a late fee. But if you simply can’t or won’t pay the bill at all, then you are off the hook altogether.”

While this is half in jest, the scenario for many visa holders, such as H1-Bs and H4s, is not unlike the quirks of the system alluded to in the above quip. Only, in this case, the joke is on them, the legal immigrants.

Those who are here entirely illegally—over 13 million of them—seem to be quite free to live and work as they please, even if it may be in the underground economy. In contrast, many of those who labored for months and years with grueling requirements of documentation, hefty legal fees, and years of waiting to finally make it into the United States legally, are often straight-jacketed by archaic and bureaucratic requirements. To further complicate things for them, these requirements and rules are often fickle, arbitrary, and onerous. They are also unjust, considering a broader environment that has abundantly, if discreetly, sanctioned outright illegality.

As a result we have thousands of H4s (spouses of H1-Bs), many of whom are highly educated and qualified, who are fuming at home, unable to productively engage themselves in the workforce, even while millions of those who have no legal status whatsoever are happily mowing lawns, working in factories, and involved in other such acts of gainful employment.

This is not about starting a class warfare amongst various stripes of immigrants. Yes, undocumented aliens, too, have their set of grievances and challenges, and at the political front, a unified voice is perhaps needed. But this shouldn’t prevent us from identifying and isolating the unique and valid grievances of H1-B visa holders and their spouses. Their lives are often on standby, with uncertainty the only vista in front of them. Not being able to set down roots for years on end due to the uncertainty is in itself a grievance. It gets worse when the same visa status limits their career options.

A recent article in The New York Times begins, “Where’s Sanjay?” and tells about the plight of Sanjay G. Mavinkurve, who, while at Harvard in 2003, wrote some of the computer code for the student networking site that later became the basis of Facebook, the social networking phenomenon. Mavinkurve, who now is a key engineer at Google, has had to move to Canada so that his wife, an H4 visa holder, can pursue her career ambitions.

The Times article then launched into what it described as the folly of the U.S. government in not being able to retain bright entrepreneurs such as Mavinkurve, who pay high taxes, create jobs, and breed innovation. However, whether it is a celebrated techie or not, the greater incredulity is this: Why would the U.S. government invite workers to the country under the skilled immigrant labor program and then subject them to complex and seemingly arbitrary standards that make their lives more restrictive than those of undocumented aliens?


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