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Legal Immigrants Face Green Card Logjam

January 2007
Legal Immigrants Face Green Card Logjam

Following all the rules, Indian national Sanjay Mehta came to the US on an H1B visa in 2000, hoping to build a glittering career in the fast-moving information technology sector. But 6 years later his application for a green card remains snarled up in a bureaucratic logjam, and he looks with frustration at the strides made by illegal immigrants who he says simply jumped the fence from bordering countries. "Washington has taken notice of them ... but what about the plight of legal immigrants to this country? We seem to have been forgotten," said Mehta, who settled in Arizona with his wife and raised two children.

Many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants are hopeful of gains from a new Democrat-led Congress next year, after massive protests in US cities pushed their cause to the top of the political agenda earlier in the year. But more than a million legal immigrants like Mehta complain that their lives have been placed on hold as they battle red tape to become permanent residents. Many are highly skilled, with science, engineering and medical degrees, and are hired by US companies, universities and research laboratories under H1 visas. They then face a wait of up to 8 years for an employment-based green card, in a process that damages their professional lives and may even jeopardize US competitiveness, immigrants, employers and analysts say.

High-skilled immigrants would ordinarily be on a fast track career in research departments, hospitals and technology firms where they work. But under the terms of the residency application many are tied to their original jobs, and face the prospect of watching colleagues advance while their lives remain on hold. "The long wait throws professional immigrants' lives in limbo," said Aman Kapoor, the founder of Immigration Voice, a national grassroots organization representing skilled immigrants across the US. "They are not able to move to better job opportunities in the prime period of their career."

Others complain they face additional problems generated by the uncertain outcome of their applications, including difficulty obtaining mortgages and even car loans. "My wife has a masters in child psychology and has taught for more than 20 years in schools in Nigeria, but here she isn't allowed to work," said Kola Akinwande, a Nigerian database administrator based in Phoenix who has been waiting two years for a green card. "I also have to pay out-of-state tuition fees for my son to study at university here, which puts an additional financial burden on the family." The process has been slowed down yet further since the September 11 2001 attacks, as lengthy background checks by the FBI can add years to the already drawn-out process.

US employers, especially in the technology sector where global competition is fierce, are also concerned that they are prevented from hiring the best and the brightest. Microsoft says it currently has 5,000 technical posts it cannot fill at its research facilities in the Puget Sound area, while Texas Instruments has more than 200 vacancies for specialists to design, develop and test integrated circuits and semiconductors. "The problem is that the US education system is not producing enough people with a math, science or engineering background to fill these vacancies, so we are having to look outside," said Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's chief lobbyist in Washington.

For employers and immigrant advocates, the solution includes raising the annual cap on H1B visas, and speeding up the residency process. Analysts warn that failure to do so could lead immigrants with sought-after skills to head for other countries like Australia, Canada and Britain, where the process is streamlined. "Unless this problem is corrected, the US will be viewed by the best professionals as an unreliable place to build a career and have a family," said Stuart Anderson, the director of the National Foundation for American Policy think-tank.

But for Sanjay Mehta, any overhaul would come too late. Weary of delays and knock-backs, he packed up his life in Arizona, and took his wife and two U.S.-born children to start again in Britain. "I feel like I wasted nine years of my life," he said.

--Sadia Subhani

Attorney At Law

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