Skilled Immigrants' March on Washington

While immigrant advocates want more green cards, tech companies also seek more work visas. As workers hit the streets, the debate is just beginning

Frustrated with the standstill on federal immigration reform, thousands of high-skilled immigrants plan to march on the nation's capital Sept. 18 to call for radical change in the way the U.S. treats them. The protesters—engineers, software developers, computer programmers, and the like—are calling for a doubling of the number of green cards allotted to them each year so more of them can stay in the country permanently. They say the waiting list for green cards, which can be five years or more, cripples careers and puts lives on hold.

The protests represent a marked change in strategy. At the beginning of 2007, groups representing skilled and unskilled immigrants worked side by side in an effort to push comprehensive reform through Congress. Now, skilled workers are breaking out on their own (BusinessWeek, 9/11/07) in hopes of distancing themselves from the controversial issue of what to do about the 12 million low-skilled workers who are already in the country illegally.

"We want to create momentum around these issues and show that there is an immediate need for them to be fixed," says Aman Kapoor, founder of Immigration Voice, an advocacy group spearheading the rally. "With hundreds of thousands of workers stuck waiting, it's a great waste of human talent."

Whether Kapoor and the other protesters can make progress remains in doubt. Immigration has become a radioactive issue in Washington. Even after President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of senators threw their weight behind comprehensive immigration reform this summer, the effort went down in flames (BusinessWeek, 6/8/07) as anti-immigrant groups put intense pressure on politicians throughout the country. Since then, the Administration has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration, leading to workplace raids and a planned crackdown on employers (BusinessWeek, 8/14/07) who hire workers with false Social Security numbers.

Building Strength

Still, Kapoor's group is not to be taken lightly. Immigration Voice has evolved quickly from a small Internet community set up for skilled workers to share ideas and experiences into a well-organized political force (BusinessWeek, 7/19/07). Over the summer the group organized a series of events modeled after the nonviolent protests of Mahatma Gandhi and won reversal of a key U.S. State Dept. decision (BusinessWeek, 7/17/07). Now, Kapoor and other top members are in regular contact with elected officials and heads of government agencies such as the Homeland Security Dept.

Immigration Voice, which is predominantly Indian, is jointly organizing the Sept. 18 rally with the Legal Immigrant Assn. The LIA, founded earlier this year, is a group of U.S.-educated Chinese professionals with advanced degrees. "This green-card marathon is exhausting the energy and creativity of talented people," says Ming Jiang, a core member of LIA. "We want to change our lives, and we are doing it the American way, though this rally."

Immigration Voice is also receiving support from major technology companies. Before the rally and march, a tech-company coalition called Compete America will join Representative Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Representative John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) to outline their goals. Compete America, which includes Oracle (ORCL), Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC), will echo Immigration Voice's call for an end to the green-card backlog. "We need an immigration policy that adapts to the changing economy—and one that not only helps fill jobs but one that welcomes innovators who create jobs," says Robert Hoffman, a spokesman for Oracle and co-chair of Compete America.

Raise the Cap?

Kapoor argues that the situation for skilled immigrants in the U.S. is becoming untenable and that dramatic change is needed. Tens of thousands of foreign workers enter the country on temporary work visas each year, and many apply for green cards. But government rules limit the number of people who can be admitted to the U.S. from any one country to 9,800. The result is that for populous countries such as India and China, the wait for permanent U.S. residency stretches as long as eight years. To help clear the queue, Immigration Voice is asking Congress to raise the annual cap on green cards from 140,000 to 300,000. They also want to make available 218,000 green cards that the government failed to issue from 2001 to the present.

The goals of skilled workers and tech companies do diverge, however. Most important, while both Compete America and Immigration Voice are advocating for more green cards, tech companies are also asking Congress for more temporary work visas, known as H-1Bs. The H-1B visa program has come under fire for keeping immigrant workers stuck in jobs as they wait for permanent residency and for allowing employers to hire cheaper workers from overseas (BusinessWeek, 6/22/07).

Some experts say the companies' push for more visas could obscure Immigration Voice's more specific call for more green cards. "The fundamental problem with the policy discussion is that Compete America has tried to blur any distinction between the H-1Bs and green cards," says Ron Hira, professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology. "But they, and the policy issues associated with each, are very different."

Finding the Right Formula

Several key elected officials have voiced support for the goals of Immigration Voice. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chair of the House subcommittee on immigration, says while she understands there is a role for H-1B visas, she sees more green cards as a better solution. "Excessive dependence on visas allows some workers to be frozen in positions and paid less than they're worth," says Lofgren, whose district includes Silicon Valley. "There is a better way to do this. We must look at why we're backlogging people we deem to be of exceptional ability."

Lofgren and her fellow members of Congress are working toward legislation for reform. They must decide whether the answer is more green cards or more visas or some combination of both. They'll do so amid pressure from groups opposed to increased immigration, including the Computer Programmers' Guild, which represents American-born tech workers.

While reform for skilled workers appears more likely than comprehensive legislation, the long and arduous debate over the proper approach is just beginning. "We are seeking political consensus to move forward," says Lofgren. "But nothing is ever easy, no matter how easy it looks."

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