Neha Shah has little time for self-pity-and not the patience to indulge in it. The 38-year-old software analyst immigrated to the United States from India in 1998 and worked her way into a well-paid position with a real estate data company in Fremont, Calif. Shah's salary and benefits package help mitigate the high medical costs needed to keep her 4-year-old son Ritvik alive, allowing the boy's father Jatin to remain at home and provide round-the-clock care.
But current U.S. immigration policy will soon disrupt this family's delicate balance. A corporate acquisition of Shah's company requires that she relocate to Boston next month, uprooting the family from established connections with local doctors and treatment centers for Ritvik's numerous ailments. Shah would like nothing more than to switch employers and continue living in Fremont, but such a change would threaten her family's right to remain in the country.
"We don't have a choice. If we don't move to Boston, we'll have to go back to India, and that would be disastrous for him at this time," she said of her son, who was born premature at 24 weeks and suffers from a narrow breathing airway, chronic lung disease, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other impairments. Though far better than returning to India, the planned move to Boston also presents formidable challenges to Ritvik's health and development. "Between now and Oct. 1, I don't have a feeding therapy lined up for him. And he doesn't eat anything by mouth," Shah said.
Shah may be a highly skilled worker on a bona fide H1-B visa, but she is dependent on her company's sponsorship to maintain legal immigrant status. She could seek sponsorship from another company but cannot afford the risk of spending any time unemployed. A change in employers would also send her green card application back to the beginning of an exceedingly long line for permanent residency.
Shah cannot help but become cynical when she tunes into the current national debate on immigration reform. The complicated Senate bill that President George W. Bush seeks to restart from its stall earlier this month addresses the problem of illegal immigration but provides little remedy for the hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants mired in green card application backlogs.
The bill's Z visa provision, if passed, could allow an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to achieve superior status to many legal immigrants overnight. Unlike H1-B visas, Z visas would give immigrants the right to change jobs at will and never forfeit their spot in the green card line. Legal immigrants could not apply for this new class of visa and would remain beholden to their employers. Shah considers that a slap in the face, effective punishment for having obeyed the law.
"This country is telling me, 'We don't want you here,'" she said. "It's telling me, 'You've been here for the best years of your life; you've worked here; you've paid taxes; you've paid into Social Security without getting any benefits. But now that you're getting older, get out.'"
The drafters of the immigration reform plan never intended to send such a harsh message. The proposed legislation, a bipartisan compromise between the likes of Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, aims to provide a compassionate but sensible regularization process. The so-called "grand bargain," hammered out over several weeks of backroom meetings between a dozen senators and two Bush administration officials, responds to a status quo that lawmakers and citizens of all political backgrounds agree to be untenable.
But the resulting bill has proved a lightning rod for criticism. The initial Senate debate drowned under a flood of amendment proposals that threatened to alter the original draft beyond recognition. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had little choice but to yank the bill from the Senate floor. The problem: Too many politicians remain unwilling to compromise.
Sen. Kyl and President Bush are out to change that but face stiff opposition within their party. Republicans have proved far more reticent than Democrats to support the immigration reform package, many responding to a vocal outcry from their conservative constituents, who charge that the bill rewards illegal immigrants with amnesty.
Daniel T. Griswold, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies, decries the use of that word: "It's unfair to call it amnesty. Being in the country illegally is a misdemeanor according to our law. Under this legislation, they would pay a fine, they would serve a probationary period, and they would jump through other hoops. That sounds like a punishment that fits the infraction."
But the question of fairness remains. Shah does not begrudge illegal immigrants the chance to improve their situation. She only wishes lawmakers would afford at least as much consideration to her plight. And her perspective is far from unique. Thousands of legal immigrants in similar situations have banded together to form Immigration Voice, a nonprofit, grassroots group that advocates for high-skilled migrant workers.
The organization's president, Aman Kapoor, an immigrant from India who manages computer databases at Florida State University, has been stuck in the green card application backlog since 2002. "This bill, which is called comprehensive, is not comprehensive. It has not a single provision for reducing the backlog of 1.1 million high-skilled immigrants, the professionals, the research scientists, the medical doctors," he said. "If the bill on the Senate floor passed, it would take me even longer to get my green card. I would be better off to declare myself an undocumented immigrant."
Immigration Voice Vice President Jay Pradhan, a computer programmer from India, echoes that refrain. He says many highly-skilled workers on H1-B visas would love the chance to acquire Z visas, a much friendlier document to the prospect of career advancement. Pradhan hears regularly from professionals throughout the country who decline promotions or superior job offers so as not to jeopardize their green card applications, an unnecessary sacrifice under the proposed Z visa rules.
Surendra Lingareddy, who immigrated to the United States from India in 1999, refused to sacrifice his career for the carrot of permanent residence-a decision he's paid for dearly. The computer software consultant has seen his green card application shoved to the back of the grossly backlogged queue five times due to changes in his job title.
In 2003, he accepted a new position within the same company and had to resubmit his green card petition. In 2004, he pursued a career-advancing opportunity with Texas Instruments and again restarted the process. Recently, he shifted from computer engineering to consultant work, accepting a position with Sapphire Technologies in Austin, Texas. He plans to begin the long road to permanent residence one more time this month.
"I've come to a point where my H1-B is going to exhaust in a year," he said. "So I've got just one more year to make sure I stay put. If it doesn't pan out, I probably will go back to India."
High-tech companies, such as Microsoft and Oracle, have expressed frustration with a system that makes it so difficult for foreign-born innovators to remain in the country. The Senate's immigration reform bill would help illegal immigrants along the path to permanent residence but would reduce the number of employment-based green cards for highly skilled legal immigrants from 140,000 per year to 90,000 per year. "I don't have anything against illegal immigrants, but this bill would punish us for coming to the United States legally and paying all of our taxes," Lingareddy said.
But Griswold believes that alarm about Z visa provisions in the Senate bill is overblown. "The Z visa is not equivalent to a green card. It's temporary status, and they would have to wait at least eight years before applying for a green card," he explained. Griswold also believes that with immigration reform the government could reduce backlogs for those waiting legally-a speculation most immigrant advocate groups don't share.
Griswold, who stands among the leading conservative voices in favor of the bill, admits that the legislation is far from perfect. He'd prefer a considerable increase in the plan's 200,000 Y visas for temporary workers not yet in the United States, a provision conspicuously absent in 1986 when legislators granted legal status to illegal immigrants already in the country but failed to address the predictable problem of more foreigners streaming across the border in years to come.
Griswold argues that stiffer border enforcement alone cannot succeed without a robust temporary worker program alongside it. "It's not enough to say we need to enforce the current law when the law is hopelessly broken," he said, criticizing conservative opponents of the Senate bill whose alternative is to throw more money at failing border enforcement efforts: "That doesn't sound very conservative to me."
In similar fashion, Sen. Kyl argues that some change is necessary even if it requires significant compromise. On his website, he concedes that the Z visa program "is not something I would have included if I could have written the bill myself." But he defends the program as less than amnesty due to its requirement that applicants pay a $5,000 fine, prove continuous employment, and pass a background check.
Fellow conservatives in the Kyl camp accuse their conservative opponents of trying to score political points at the expense of meaningful progress on immigration. Some Democrats may be playing political games, too. Sen. Reid blamed the bill's initial stall in the Senate on a lack of leadership from President Bush, suggesting next day headlines should declare, "The president fails again."
But Bush is not finished fighting. He challenged lawmakers last week that the time for immigration reform is now. Many political analysts agree, noting the near impossibility of tackling sticky issues once election season reaches full tilt.
Some Republicans fear that allowing the immigration debate to stretch out to the 2008 presidential election could foster disastrous results in splitting the GOP's conservative base. Indeed, the issue has proved uniquely divisive within groups typically unified around a conservative vision. Many evangelicals are unsure how to balance biblical principles of hospitality and justice in such a complicated debate.
Griswold, himself an evangelical, contends that the law should afford illegal immigrants room for redemption: "There's the letter of the law, but there's also mercy. These people have not committed an inherently criminal act. To cross an international border, to fill a job that's waiting, to help support your family, that's not an inherently criminal act-or else we've all descended from criminals."
Pragmatics aside, such compassion is bound to resonate with many evangelicals. But Neha Shah and her son Ritvik need room for redemption, too.