The Gandhi Protests Pay Off

Facing political pressure and legal action, the U.S. government may speed up green-card processing and make more slots available

After two weeks of protests by high-skilled immigrants over a broken promise to expedite the processing of green cards, the White House has approached immigration advocacy groups to work out a compromise. While the talks are ongoing and could still break down, the government is likely to reverse a July 2 decision to refuse more permanent residency applications, and will likely begin accepting them in the next few days. "I think they are determined to fix the situation," says Charles Kuck, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.

Also under discussion is whether green cards that have gone unused in previous years could be used this year. As a result, one possible scenario is that the number of high-skilled workers who gain permanent residency in the U.S. this year could swell to more than twice the historical level. "They've got to do something," says one congressional staffer close to the discussions.

Visa Rallies

The high-skill workers, who are in the country legally, have taken to the streets because of a recent about-face by the federal government. On June 12, the State Dept. issued a bulletin offering hundreds of thousands of green-card applicants the chance to enter the final phase of processing, called Adjustment of Status. The workers, in the U.S. on temporary visas, rushed to complete their applications by July 2, the first day they could be submitted. But that day, the State Dept. withdrew its bulletin, explaining that the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services had already fulfilled its quota and would not accept further applications.

The reversal set off a wave of protests from a community not known for speaking out. On July 14, five hundred tech workers from companies like Sun Microsystems (SUNW), Oracle (ORCL) and Cisco (CSCO) marched in the streets of Silicon Valley to express their outrage. "Justice for Legal Immigrants" read a placard carried by one protester. "We Played by the Rules, Now It's Your Turn" read another.

The rally followed a July 10 protest in which hundreds of green-card applicants sent flowers to the director of U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. The flowers and the rally were modeled after the nonviolent protests of Mahatma Gandhi, and they emerged from Immigration Voice, a group that advocates for high-tech immigrants in the U.S. on visas (see, 7/13/07, "The Gandhi Protests").

Employers React

The high-skilled workers also have the strong support of their employers. American tech companies, including IBM (IBM), Motorola (MOT), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Texas Instruments (TXN), and Intel (INTC), have been pushing hard to persuade Congress to allow more skilled workers into the country, both on temporary and permanent visas. On July 13, Oracle Senior Vice-President Kenneth Glueck sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urging him to reverse the July 2 memorandum.

"[T]he update memorandum puts a severe strain on our ability to recruit and retain highly skilled individuals, including many who were educated right here in the U.S.," Glueck wrote. "At a time when our nation's status as an innovation leader is being seriously and aggressively challenged internationally, the U.S. government should be making it easier for those who are already contributing to our economic growth and innovation leadership to remain in the U.S. on a permanent basis."

There's legal pressure being brought to bear on the government, too.

On July 6, a Chicago immigration law firm filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status against the government. The American Immigration Law Foundation, a nonprofit group, said it is preparing a complaint for a separate class-action suit.

Perhaps the most acute pressure on the Bush Administration is coming from Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose congressional district includes Silicon Valley. After the State Dept. reversal, Lofgren criticized the decision and on July 11 sent a letter asking for detailed information on how and why the decision was made. She requested "all correspondence, e-mails, memoranda, notes, field guidance or other documentation relating to the issuance" of the reversal notice. Kuck, of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. (AILA), speculates that the last thing the Administration wants is for the details of the "bureaucratic, nightmarish snafu" to become public.

Government Hurdles

With the protests and other pressures, the Administration is now seeking some sort of compromise solution. The fundamental problem is the mismatch between temporary work visas and permanent residency papers. Tens of thousands of foreign workers enter the U.S. on work visas each year, and many apply for green cards. But current government rules limit the number of people who can be admitted to the U.S. from any particular country to 9,800. The result is that for larger countries, including India and China, the wait for permanent U.S. residency now stretches for years. As they wait, visa workers are required to maintain the same job and salary, or they are bumped back to the long queue. That leaves many of the most educated and talented immigrants feeling stuck, sometimes to the point of hopelessness (see, 6/21/07, "One Easy Fix for Immigration").

The situation has been aggravated because the U.S. government has not been giving out all the green cards it can, despite the backlog. For example, a spokesperson for the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services says that 10,000 of the 140,000 green cards allotted for skilled workers were not granted last year. It is unclear what the reason for the shortcoming is, though some experts have speculated it is due to a lack of resources at USCIS. An Immigration Voice spokesperson estimates that up to 200,000 unused green cards have piled up over the past decade.

Looking for Solutions

The question in the wake of the protests is what kind of compromise can be reached. The Administration and Congress are likely to work out a solution that will allow workers who completed their paperwork by July 2 to take their place in line, and the deadline for paperwork may be extended into August. In addition, they are expected to address the systematic historical problems so that all 140,000 green cards are used each year going forward.

More controversial is whether Congress and the Administration will try to allow the issuance of green cards from previous years that went unused. One congressional staffer says the possibility has been discussed. Such an agreement could result in a scenario where the number of foreign workers gaining green cards over the next year would be more double the average.

But that idea may face long odds. AILA's Kuck says that current law prohibits green cards from one year to be used in other years. And he thinks there is no appetite in either Congress or the White House for writing new pro-immigration legislation, after the comprehensive immigration reform proposal went down in flames earlier this summer. "I don't think they'd touch the issue with a 10-foot pole," says Kuck. "This issue has become radioactive."

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