Cover Story

Not so 'grand' a bargain

Immigration reform that may help undocumented workers could punish highly skilled foreigners who entered the country legally. And with attention focused on the plight of illegals, what's a legal to do?

Issue: "Crossing borders," June 23, 2007

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.

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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."

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