Cover Story

Not so 'grand' a bargain

"Not so 'grand' a bargain" Continued...

Issue: "Crossing borders," June 23, 2007

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.

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