A Green Light on the Road to Green Cards

The federal government reverses a moratorium on "Adjustment of Status" applications in response to protests by employers and high-skilled immigrants

In the face of mounting protests and the threat of legal action by highly skilled immigrants and their advocates, the U.S. government said on July 17 that it will reverse a previous decision and accept applications from thousands of workers who are trying to become permanent residents.

Rescinding a notice from early July, the Homeland Security Dept.'s U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it will accept applications from employment-based green-card hopefuls for advancement to the final phase of the process until Aug. 17. Advancement to this "Adjustment of Status" step means that these workers—many of whom have been tied to one employer under visas as they await green cards—will now have the freedom to switch jobs and accept promotions. They'll also be one step closer to staying in the U.S. for good.

"The public reaction to the July 2 announcement made it clear that the federal government's management of this process needs further review," said USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez in a statement. "I am committed to working with Congress and the State Dept. to implement a more efficient system in line with public expectations."

The Occasion for the Turnabout

Highly skilled workers applauded the decision, though they vow to press for more action to improve their situation. The workers, in the U.S. legally, often have to wait years for their green cards because of a backlog of applications that has swelled to tens of thousands of people from some countries. "This is a good temporary solution," says Jay Pradhan, spokesperson for Immigration Voice, an advocacy group for highly skilled immigrants that organized a rally and other actions. "It's a great relief that all the time and money people spent won't go to waste. But more importantly, it's a step forward for peoples' careers and their lives."

The workers erupted with anger earlier this month because of a sudden reversal by the federal government. On June 12 the State Dept. issued a bulletin offering hundreds of thousands of green-card applicants the chance to move their applications into the Adjustment of Status phase. The workers, in the U.S. on temporary permits called H1-B visas, rushed to complete their applications by July 2, the first day they could be submitted. Then, on that day, the State Dept. withdrew the bulletin, explaining that USCIS had already fulfilled its quota and would not accept further applications.

Outraged, workers organized protests, modeled after the nonviolence of Mahatma Gandhi. Green-card applicants first sent flowers to the USCIS office to express their anger. Then, on July 14, 500 workers from Cisco (CSCO), Oracle (ORCL), Sun Microsystems (SUNW), and other companies marched in the streets of Silicon Valley with signs reading "We Played By the Rules, Now It's Your Turn" and "Justice for Legal Immigrants" (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/13/07, "The Gandhi Protests"). The high-tech immigrant community, which had not been a significant political force before, coalesced in part because of Immigration Voice. The group has a Web site that invites members to participate in discussion forums and exchange ideas and strategies for their campaign.

Critics Respond Positively

As BusinessWeek.com previously reported, the effort helped spur White House senior officials to reach out to the community to make amends (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/17/07, "The Gandhi Protests Pay Off"). The Administration was also under pressure from pro-immigration congressmen, law firms threatening legal action, and tech companies that employ many of these workers, including Microsoft (MSFT), Oracle, and Cisco.

After the USCIS said on July 17 that it will extend the deadline, the workers' supporters expressed relief: "Providing a reliable path to permanent residency is critical to ensuring that American technology companies can retain the highly skilled employees required to maintain our country's competitiveness," said Brad Smith, senior vice-president and general counsel for Microsoft, in a statement. "By providing a 31-day window for applications to be filed, the department has clearly recognized the importance of enabling valued U.S. workers to take this important step in the visa process."

U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose district includes Silicon Valley, also voiced her support for the compromise. "I think it's a reasonable resolution," she said in an interview. "They really messed this up." She had been one of the most vocal critics of USCIS's handling of the situation. On July 11, Lofgren sent a letter asking for detailed information on how and why the government had decided to stop taking green-card applications, requesting "all correspondence, e-mails, memoranda, notes, field guidance, or other documentation relating to the issuance" of the decision. She may now continue to ask for information, but "it will be a lot less confrontational."

Not the End of the Road

Still unresolved is the issue of green cards that have gone unused in the past decade or more. USCIS estimates that 10,000 green cards of the 140,000 allotted for employment-based applicants were not issued last year. Immigration Voice estimates that 200,000 in total have gone unused in the last decade. Immigrant advocates have been urging the federal government to offer make these green-card slots available to help relieve the backlog of those waiting for green cards, an estimated 500,000.

Using green cards from previous years would require legislation from Congress. Lofgren says there have been "some discussions going on informally" about whether such a move is possible. But it's no sure thing. It would be difficult to pass such legislation in a Congress that is leery of any immigration issue after a comprehensive reform effort with the support of President George W. Bush and bipartisan leaders in the Senate got shot down earlier this summer.

Meanwhile, immigrant advocates say they will continue to press to speed the process of turning workers with visas into permanent residents. "This [decision] helps us move from a more painful limbo to a less painful limbo, but it's limbo nonetheless," says Immigration Voice's Pradhan. "Adjustment of status is not our final destination; green-card status is."

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