Skilled migrants stuck in backlog

Few work visas, green cards for legal entrants


The Baltimore engineering company recruited Raj Patel from Ontario, Canada. In the hope that he would stay for good, the firm applied for a green card from the federal immigration service to ensure that Patel would be able to live and work permanently in the United States.

Patel seized the opportunity, expecting to become a legal permanent resident within a year. Two years later, he is among an estimated 350,000 skilled professionals forced to live in limbo as their applications meander through a huge backlog of immigration cases, a wait that can take a decade.

As Congress debates "comprehensive immigration reform," doctors, computer technicians and engineers - who, like Patel, came to the United States through legal channels - complain that their plight has been eclipsed by talks on border fences, guest workers and the fate of 12 million illegal immigrants.

Legal immigrants and the employers who recruit them are clamoring for changes that trim the backlog, streamline the application process and enlarge the pool of visas available to foreign professionals.

`We are overlooked'

The Senate passed a landmark immigration bill Thursday that would set millions of illegal immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship and deal with some of the backlog. But many foreign-born professionals in the U.S. express doubts that any reforms will be enacted. Senators will negotiate with members of the House of Representatives, where a more restrictive immigration measure passed in December.

"Everybody is talking about the illegal immigrants, even though they broke the law," said Patel. "They are going to give them amnesty, but the high-skilled people like us, who are contributing to the U.S. economy - we are overlooked."

Patel's wait hinders his family's opportunities. His son, Brijesh, who just graduated from Catonsville High School, won an $8,000 Meyerhoff Scholarship for students pursuing a career in math or science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But because Brijesh is not a permanent resident, he is not eligible for the money.

"It's not only the money, but he wants to go into medicine," said Patel. "This scholarship would have given him opportunities."

About six months ago, Patel stumbled upon an Internet message board full of frustrated professionals like him. There, he learned about a new grass-roots organization of professionals urging changes in the system. The group, Immigration Voice, claims 4,000 members and works with a lobbyist to make its views known on Capitol Hill and in the news media.

The current process for employment-based permanent immigration relies on a quota system. Eligible applicants include such professionals as college professors, physicians and company managers. About 140,000 visas are available each year, but no nation is allowed more than 7 percent of the total. If some countries do not use their allocation, others may then apply for the leftovers.

Applicants from India and China dominate the pool each year, and even with the ability to reapply, workers from those nations are at a disadvantage, said Aman Kapoor, founder and director of Immigration Voice, who was born in India and works as a computer programmer for Florida State University in Tallahassee.

"How is it possible that a country like Barbados for example, with only 300,000 people, has to compete for the same slots with India or China, countries with populations of more than 1 billion people?" he said.

Visas are given by country of birth, not citizenship. So Patel, who was born in India but has Canadian citizenship, must compete with thousands of Indian-born professionals who seek the same opportunity.

The Senate proposal would increase the cap to 10 percent, offering some relief. But advocates said last week that they were trying to determine the proposal's overall impact. While the number of visas would increase, it is unclear whether spouses and children of visa holders would count against the overall number, which advocates said would diminish the total available for workers.

"We are very optimistic and hopeful," said Bharati Mandapati, an Indian-born economist in Berkeley, Calif., who reviews legislation for Immigration Voice. "But we are nervous about how things will go in the House. We understand there are members of the House that do not look favorably on any kind of immigration."

`It's not fair'

Many who seek employment-based immigration have arrived here on temporary visas designed for professional workers in specialty categories. Shilpa Ghodgaonkar, a member of Immigration Voice, lives in Germantown with her husband, who works in information technology on a temporary visa. They were both born in India.

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