Often discussed immigration reform will most likely be a long time coming, but several county residents are taking matters into their own hands, lobbying Congress to act now to speed up the waiting time for green cards.
Germantown resident Shyam Sriram is one of them. He is vice president of the Maryland Chapter of Immigration Voice, a grass roots organization concerned about the backlog of green card applications.
“Its not ridiculous, its outrageous,” Sriram said. “The way the laws are written it can take 70 years to [get a green card].”
A green card allows an immigrant to become eligible for permanent resident status and work in the U.S. It is also a first step towards becoming a U.S. citizen. It allows holders to open new businesses, change jobs, ask for a raise, travel to their home countries and return to the United States and be assured that they will not have to leave the country if they lose their jobs.
With an H-1B visa for highly skilled workers, that most Immigration Voice members have according to Sriram, those simple acts are difficult if not impossible.
Sriram, 35, came to the United States from India to attend graduate school at the University of Texas, Arlington. He has a master’s degree in electrical engineering and works in the transportation business. He has a H-1B visa which allows him to work.
He has to stay with the same employer, in the same job he said. His employer is his green card sponsor and any change in his employment means he must reapply for a green card with the new employer as his sponsor and that would bump him to the end of the line. He has had his application for a green card in for six years, he said, and thinks it will take another 10 years.
“Its a complex issue,” he said. “We want [Congress] to understand the immigration system should be fair to immigrants as well as Americans.”
The system as it is now set up works to the advantage of big corporations, he said.
“The problem right now is bigger companies are taking advantage of the system by hiring people and keeping them in the same position,” he said. “The unintended consequence is it hurts Americans as well. The way the law is written employers hire immigrants and keep them.”
Shruthi Mukund of Bethesda is also from India. She has been in the United States since 2001 and applied for a green card in 2005.
“I’m still waiting,” she said.
Both she and Sriram said one of the hardest parts of waiting for a green card is staying in the same job.
“When we apply for a green card we apply [through] a specified job, with a specified company, at a specified location, a specified title and a specified salary,” Mukund said. “When you ask for a raise or a promotion your place in the green card ‘line’ changes, the process restarts.”
A lot of people across the county are stuck in this position Mukund said, the same job for life or, if you lose your job you must leave the country. She estimates that more than a million highly skilled immigrants are stuck in the green card backlog.
The United States issues 140,000 green cards per year for employment based categories such as those with H-1B visas. But no one country’s workers can get more than seven percent of available green cards according to a U.S. Office of Homeland Security website.
“These quotas … are Congressionally mandated,” said Christopher Bentley, chief of media relations in the Office of Communications, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Department of Homeland Security. “The wait time can be up to 15 years.”
Bentley said he has never heard of a 70 year wait as described by Sriram. He did say wait times can be estimated by looking at the State Department Visa Bulletin online.
According to the State Department Bulletin for April 2015, workers from India who are in the Employment based preferences, where most members of Immigration Voice fall, can see they have a long wait. Permanent visas are available for those “…Members of the Professions Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability…” who applied before Sept. 1, 2007. “…Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Other Workers…” have a longer wait: they need to have applied before Jan. 8, 2004 to get their permanent visas in April 2015.
That is the category Mukund is in as she does not hold an advanced degree.
“What gets lost is the story of more than a million law abiding, tax paying, highly skilled immigrants that are stuck in green card backlogs with less rights,” Vikram Desai, communications director for Immigration Voice said.
Hoping to make a difference Immigration Voice members are petitioning Congress to fix the immigration system.
“We spend our own money to advocate for the change we are seeking. People take time out of their personal lives and spend their own money to travel to Washington, D.C. to ask for change as constituents of the various districts,” Desai wrote in an email.
He believes Immigration Voice is being heard.
In 2011, HR 3012 Immigration Bill to remove the country cap of seven percent of each year’s 140,000 green cards passed the House but not the Senate. This year another bill, HR 213, was introduced and Immigration Voice members are encouraging their legislators to pass it.