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Regional Interests

Silicon Valley Lawmaker Seeks to Shorten Path to Citizenship for Immigrant Tech Workers

Many skilled foreign workers — especially from India — wait years, or even decades, for a green card which would allow them to stay and work in the United States permanently. Federal legislation co-sponsored by Silicon Valley Rep. Zoe Lofgren would phase out some of the rules that have created that backlog. But the bill’s survival is far from certain.

If you spend much time in the tech world, you invariably hear about the epic queue for employment-based green cards, especially from Indian nationals. Shibin Nambiar of Fremont did when he first moved to the U.S. in 2013 on a temporary H-1B work visa.

“You don’t realize it today, but down the line, when you’ll have your kid and your wife, and you’re settled and you have a house — that time you’ll realize — you just will never get your green card,” said Nambiar, a data architect at Rubrik, a cloud data management company based in Palo Alto. “It’s going to be a life of uncertainty forever.”

Nambiar applied for a green card in 2015, after he got married, had a kid and bought a house. But he faces a wait so long, he jokes he may have to wait for his 4-year-old son, born here in the U.S., to turn 21 and sponsor him for residency based on their family relationship. “He can file for us ultimately, and that’s the way we might get a green card!”

According to 2020 data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, more than 1 million people are waiting for an employment-based green card. And more people join the queue each year. But immigration law caps the total number of new cards at just 140,000 per year, and spouses and children of green card applicants count toward the annual cap.

“You know, the system that we have now has basically not been changed in many decades, and I think it’s operating in a way that people likely didn’t envision,” said Lofgren, who co-sponsored The Equal Access to Green cards for Legal Employment, or EAGLE Act, of 2021. She serves on the Judiciary Committee and chairs the House Immigration Subcommittee.

The bottleneck is compounded for immigrants from high-demand countries, because U.S. law stipulates that no more than 7% of green cards can go to workers from any single country in a given year.

“If you were born in India, applications filed on Aug. 1, 2010, are being approved today, and it doesn’t make any sense to organize it in this way,” she added.

Most of those waiting for employment-based green cards are from two countries: India and China. Albania and Zimbabwe are allocated the same number as India and China, even though Albania and Zimbabwe aren’t educating nearly as many people keen to work in Silicon Valley.

“It’s worth remembering the only people who actually benefit from this bill are people who’ve gone through all the hoops to become legal permanent residents of the United States,” said Lofgren. “And, in a way that’s really un-American, instead of looking at their merits, we’re looking at their place of birth.”

The bill, H.R. 3648, phases out the 7% per-country limit on employment-based immigrant visas. It would also raise the 7% per-country limit on family-sponsored immigrant visas to 15%.

Reducing the bottlenecks and allowing more skilled foreign workers to make a permanent home in the U.S. will benefit the broader economy, said Sean Randolph, senior director of the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a public-private partnership of business, labor, government and higher education.

“If you look at where a lot of the hiring is from in tech companies, the big story is India,” Randolph said. “There is a pretty broad consensus, on a bipartisan level, that we need to support more skilled immigration into the United States.”

But even though the EAGLE Act is widely supported by business interests, its future is not assured. A similar bill failed to make it to President Trump’s desk in 2019. And due to the way partisanship has paralyzed Washington, D.C., it’s become difficult for Republican lawmakers to publicly support a hot-button issue like immigration reform.

While the EAGLE Act may not move forward as a stand-alone bill, according to a Democratic staffer who asked not to be identified, there’s a plan to fold in elements of the bill when the Senate sends its budget to the House for reconciliation, sometime in September. Lofgren was one of roughly a dozen lawmakers lobbying President Biden over the summer for various immigration reforms. It’s too soon to say which parts of the bill might survive these negotiations.

The EAGLE Act also includes reforms to the contentious H-1B visa program, which allows foreign citizens in specialty occupations, like computer engineering, to work in the U.S. temporarily. Silicon Valley employers have long taken advantage of people on these visas — and often hire them instead of American citizens who expect better pay and working conditions. The changes the EAGLE Act would make are not enough to mollify protectionist critics like John Miano, a computer programmer turned lawyer who’s sued multiple administrations over immigration policy.

Among other things, he dislikes the fact that a 1990 law allowed employers of H-1B and L-1 visa holders to apply for green cards for those workers. That extended the U.S. stay of those employees while the applications are processed, and it gave hundreds of thousands of foreign workers like Nambiar hope of a permanent life here. But it also swamped the waiting line for employment-based green cards. The EAGLE Act, Miano argues, would not change that.

“The fundamental problem is that we have a guest worker system, and we have a permanent immigration system. The guest worker system is larger than the permanent immigration system,” said Miano. “They used to be separate. You take a large system and you pour it into a small system, and you can see what happens.”

Comedian John Oliver, who came to the U.S. on a work-based visa himself, explained this dynamic in a 2019 episode of his show, “Last Week Tonight.”

“I can tell you from experience here, living on a visa can be very stressful, and involves having to jump through endless, costly hoops,” Oliver said.

When his employer finally presented Oliver with a green card, he said he nearly burst into tears from relief: “That is when I realized I’d been worried about my immigration status every single day.”

So what do those in the epic queue for a green card think of the modest ambitions of the EAGLE Act?

“I feel [if a] Band-Aid is the approach, then it is,” said Leena Bhai of Sunnyvale. Her family has been waiting on her husband’s green card application for five years. “Is comprehensive reform even possible? If not, let’s just work with what we can.”

One of Bhai’s children was born in the U.S., the other in India. If they don’t get their green cards before the child born in India — now 6 — turns 21, he will lose his dependent status, and will have to return to the country of his birth to file his own green card application.

At the very least, Bhai says, she’s hoping federal lawmakers make clear whether they want families like hers to stay permanently. Because if not, she and her husband are likely to move their family to another country — one where they can feel secure that their young children will be welcome to go to college when that day comes.

Copyright 2021 KQED