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There are no slogans, no chants, no protesters streaming through the streets carrying banners and flags — just a bunch of programmers and researchers quietly hunched over their computer keyboards, tapping out horror stories about their immigration woes. It doesn’t make for compelling television, especially compared with the images of millions of mostly undocumented aliens marching in the “Day Without Immigrants” rallies across the country last month. But while a high-profile public debate over the fate of the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States has played out noisily on the airwaves in recent months, a grass-roots coalition with a low-key bent has been pushing to solve problems faced by an often-overlooked contingent: highly skilled legal immigrants. Last December, after Congress killed an amendment to a budget reconciliation bill that would have provided relief to highly skilled workers applying for permanent-residence visas, or green cards, a group of immigrants who had been following the issue decided to take action, forming Immigration Voice, a nonprofit aimed at lobbying for the rights of legal immigrants. The coalition around the issue has expanded to include some of America’s top technology companies and well-heeled industry groups, such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Information Technology Industry Council, which argue that the dearth of U.S. science and mathematics graduates has left businesses with an employee shortage. The groups argue the United States can only maintain its competitive edge by having more access to the “best and brightest” from around the world. Shilpa Ghodgaonkar, Immigration Voice’s vice president, says her group is now 5,000 members strong and they want changes to immigration law to streamline the green card application process and reduce the backlog of pending cases. Currently, immigrants applying for employment-based green cards often wait for at least five years before their applications even begin to be processed. The group quickly gained a sophisticated understanding of the way Congress works, hiring the prominent lobby shop Quinn Gillespie & Associates to help it navigate Washington’s power grid. FILLING THE VOID Companies often use the H1B visa to hire foreign workers in occupations that require at least a bachelor’s degree and specialized expertise. Many of the visas go to computer programmers, but other H1B occupations include engineers, scientists, architects, systems analysts, and medical doctors. Currently, the law caps the number of H1B visas at 65,000 annually. But the H1B visas for 2007 are already exhausted. Companies began applying for the visas April 1. By May 26 the cap had been hit, meaning that companies will have to wait until April 2007 to apply again. “There’s a void in the talent pipeline,” says Ginny Terzano, a Microsoft spokeswoman. Because there are not enough H1B visas available to fill the gap, top technical and development jobs have been left open at Microsoft, she says.
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The immigration bill the Senate passed on May 25 includes provisions that would provide significant relief for skilled immigrants. It would increase the H1B visa cap from 65,000 to 115,000 annually. If the cap were met, it would automatically increase by 20 percent the following year, raise the number of employment-based green cards available, and streamline the application process. But the forecast for an overhaul of the immigration laws in this session of Congress remains cloudy. On June 20, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) announced the House will hold hearings across the country this summer on immigration policy before negotiating on the bill with the Senate, making it unlikely any legislation will be passed this year. The Senate responded the next day by announcing its own series of hearings. Though the Senate’s immigration proposal includes a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, as well as the highly skilled worker provisions, the House immigration bill, passed late last year, deals only with border security. The proposed hearings are the latest sign of the House’s reluctance to compromise with the Senate on the bill. SHUTTING THE GOLDEN DOOR “What makes it worse is the absolute uncertainty,” Immigration Voice’s Ghodgaonkar says of the lack of information about the process. Ghodgaonkar, who lives in Germantown, Md., has been one of Immigration Voice’s most frequent representatives on Capitol Hill. Ironically, she says she has time to get involved with the issue because her visa, which depends on her husband’s H1B visa, doesn’t allow her to work. Her husband is applying for an employment-based green card, which would also allow her to get a green card, but she says they have received little news about their application, which was filed almost four years ago. “It’s a black box,” says Ghodgaonkar, who was a computer engineer in her native India and completed an MBA at George Washington University in 2005. “You can’t make any sort of plans.” Applicants for employment-based green cards are also hampered because they cannot change jobs — or even accept a promotion or a raise — without jeopardizing their application. Once their labor certification — the first step in the green card application — has been filed, any change in job status can force applicants to start their green card process all over again, says James Alexander, a senior attorney at Maggio & Kattar, a D.C. firm specializing in immigration. Employers lose out as well, since the burdensome process makes it tough for U.S. companies to recruit and hold on to top young talent. Most of these immigrants are in their 20s and 30s and thus are in the “formative years” of their career, Ghodgaonkar notes. Reforms to the employment-based green card and H1B visa processes are critical to America’s competitiveness, says Sandra Boyd, vice president of human resources policy at NAM and chair of Compete America, a coalition that includes heavy hitters such as Microsoft, Intel, Sun Microsystems, and Motorola, as well as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. American companies have typically addressed the shortage in technical labor by tapping the deep pool of international students who come to the United States for graduate studies. According to the National Science Foundation, 55 percent of all engineering doctorates and 44 percent of mathematics and computer science Ph.D.’s earned in America in 2003 were awarded to foreign students. But the lack of sufficient H1B visas and the cumbersome green card process have made it harder to keep graduates in the country. Businesses argue that if companies can’t meet their hiring needs here, they’ll eventually have to take the jobs offshore, where the workers are. “It’s a global marketplace,” says Angelo Amador, the director of immigration policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “IBM is tripling its capacity in India.” Although the United States has historically been the destination of choice for skilled immigrants, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the United Kingdom are now attempting to take advantage of U.S. limitations, reforming their immigration programs to make it easier for highly skilled workers to immigrate, says Bo Cooper, formerly general counsel for the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now of counsel in Paul, Hastings, Janofsky and Walker‘s D.C. office. KILL THE BILL? Immigration Voice and industry lobbyists stress that their issues are just a small, noncontroversial part of the ongoing legislative fight. “Virtually everyone understands the need for this,” says Jeff Lande, senior vice president at the Information Technology Association of America. “It’s caught up in the broader immigration debate.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who opposes the comprehensive bill, introduced a measure containing many of the same highly skilled worker provisions in the Senate in early May, and industry groups say they are advocating for the House to take up a companion bill. But several immigration experts expressed doubt about whether this is a viable option. “I don’t think there can be a stand-alone vehicle,” says Jeanne Butterfield, the executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. It would unravel the fragile coalition that made an immigration bill possible in the Senate, she says. “Proponents of immigration reform won’t let people cherry-pick,” a lobbyist says. “Any will to deal with the undocumented will be lost if you lose the backing of people promoting border security or the business community, because they’ve got their own bill.” And though business lobbyists like to portray their favored immigration provision as noncontroversial, there has been significant opposition in the past to measures aimed at raising the H1B cap. Paul Virtue, also a former INS general counsel and now a D.C.-based partner at Hogan & Hartson and head of the firm’s immigration practice, cautions that the Republican majority in the House are generally opposed to any increase in immigration numbers. Moreover, some organizations representing U.S. engineers, scientists, and other technical professionals, including the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, have lobbied heavily against an increase in the H1B cap, claiming that employers use H1Bs as a source of cheap labor, thereby depressing U.S. workers’ wages. “The program is broken,” says Vin O’Neill, senior legislative representative for the IEEE. “The safeguards that are allegedly in place are not working.”


Alexia Garamfalvi can be contacted at [email protected].

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