As unemployment continues to spike in the U.S., highly-skilled immigrants are more vulnerable to lose their jobs and their visas.
The U.S. issues up to 65,000 H-1B work visas each year for highly-skilled professionals. Foreign-born architects, engineers, computer programmers, accountants, doctors and other skilled workers are eligible to come to America under these visa provisions.
Each year, approximately 20,000 more H-1B visas are reserved for those with master’s or doctoral degrees from the U.S.
Holders of this visa can stay for a maximum of six years and apply for a Green Card and permanent residence if sponsored by their company. But applicants often wait in line for years, and up to 500,000 H-1B visa holders are waiting for a green card.
Rajeet Mohan is an Indian living in the U.S. on an H-1B visa. He shares his frustrating immigration experience and offers some solutions to retain and leverage highly-skilled immigrants in the U.S.
I saw the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” the weekend after my Green Card application had been denied.
So many threads from the main character Jamal’s childhood connect to the moment he’s sitting in the hot seat of “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” competing for 20 million rupees. The movie made me think of how U.S. immigration policies seem to have played such a big role in shaping my destiny in this country and how I have no control over the results. This is my story of patience and frustration for the elusive “greener pastures” in my life.
A lot has been written and debated about the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S., however, little is published on highly-skilled immigrants.
Who is a highly skilled immigrant? For the purpose of my story, it represents an individual (like me) who has earned a master’s degree or higher from an American university, and holds a job for which an American citizen wasn’t available.
The life cycle of the legal immigrant is well defined: An F-1 student visa, followed by an H-1B (valid for six years) and — if the Goddess Fortuna blesses him/her — the prized Green Card (U.S. permanent resident card).
I came to the U.S. from India on Jan. 3, 1998 with $1,000 in Traveler’s checks and $500 in cash — just enough to buy a return ticket if there was an urgent situation back home. Little did I realize that on that day I had stepped into the “slumdog” immigrant life cycle — a legal process of immigration that is so painful and uncertain that if I were ever to advise potential immigrants willing to take this path, I would oppose the decision with the same level of intensity that Lou Dobbs so effectively uses to make his case against illegal immigrants.
I completed my master’s degree and went on to work for some of the finest American companies as an employee and a consultant. My Green Card application was filed in October 2002. After six years in line, I have never seen the Green Card and I’m not sure if I ever will get to see one.
The reason: I changed jobs three years ago. Though the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act has made job changes for immigrants easier after a specified period of time, my case falls into what was a loophole in the system. In 2006, it was technically legal for my former employer to “transfer” my status (without my knowledge) to another immigrant professional when I left my job. This practice was addressed and made illegal by Homeland Security in 2007.
How I found out: I logged on to my computer this past Thanksgiving to check my application status, as I often do, and it abruptly said “canceled.” I was not notified three years ago when I switched jobs or even now. Modern technology today allows us to track every packet via FedEx or UPS, so why do immigration applications, which are so crucial to the U.S. government and the applicant, get lost in a service center “black hole”?
Defenders of USCIS say that there is a process to appeal such decisions, which I’m in the process of doing. The problem is that there is no definite time line for the appeals process to be resolved and usually the legal immigrant has to finally use his $1,500 to go back to his home country.
I have listed several problems here, but the consultant in me wants to offer some solutions so that highly-skilled immigrants who find themselves in this predicament have more options than to simply quit their jobs, unwind their assets and return to their home countries.
I’m a firm believer of free market principles and having a good understanding of supply and demand (something I still remember from business school), I propose the following solutions to the legal immigrants’ problem of being in the dark during the Green Card process.
1. Decouple the link between the employer and the applicant after a specific stage in the Green Card process. In other words, take the middle-man employer or sponsor out of the process and make the contract between the immigrant and the government. I’m confident that this action will unleash the full potential of highly-skilled immigrant populations and America has all to gain from it — especially in today’s tough economic environment.
2. In return for action mentioned in the first solution and the assurance of the Green Card, immigrants with master’s degrees or higher, should donate their time and expertise. For two hours a week for one year, these highly-skilled immigrants should teach/tutor kids of U.S. citizens. I am proud of the strong foundation of the Indian schooling system, especially when it comes to math and science. Both Alan Greenspan and Thomas Friedman have highlighted the huge gap in math and science education for American kids. Their analysis predicts detrimental long-term impact. Their writings enunciate how this knowledge gap could lead America to potentially lose its innovative spirit.
Leveraging the skills of these immigrants could herald a new dimension to the grassroots movement that seems to be taking shape and ultimately restore America to the greatness for which we all left our homeland. The recent changes in the American political landscape have given me “hope.” President Barack Obama’s call for grassroots movement made me think of what immigrants could do for their adopted country.
So, back to me as the “slumdog immigrant.” I’m in the “hot seat” situation as I wait for my rejected Green Card application to be reconsidered. The motion I will be filing has no expected resolution date and since my current work visa (my current backup) is valid only until June 15, 2009, my hopes now rest on the astronomical alignment of my fate. If my application doesn’t get reconsidered by June 15, I must quit my job, sell my house, unwind my assets and return to India.
I don’t doubt that I can find work in India, and certainly, my family is there. But my wife, 2-year-old son and I have made a life and home in the U.S. and want to stay.
In the game show, the contestant has one opportunity to use a “lifeline” to choose A, B, C or D. In my case, the only “lifeline” I have is to dial 1-800-375-5283 — USCIS Customer Service.
– Rajeet Mohan
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