Nikhil Vitkar, a Twin Cities software engineer, believes there is an easy fix for the long waits he and other Indian professionals have faced to get green cards.
He recently pitched it to Minnesota lawmakers: Lift the annual cap on employment-based green cards that can go to natives of any one country. The limit of 7 percent per country has produced lengthy backlogs for Indian and Chinese applicants. Now, Vitkar and other Minnesota immigrants are joining a push to scrap the cap, arguing it is arbitrary and unfair.
"We get hired on the basis of our skills, not on the basis of the country we come from," said Vitkar.
Two Minnesota Democrats and two Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors of a U.S. House bill that would eliminate the cap without boosting the overall supply of visas. The state's Chamber of Commerce says the proposal would give Minnesota's high-tech employers a better shot at retaining often U.S.-educated foreign talent.
But some critics of the bill say it could lengthen waits for immigrants from other countries and lessen the diversity of the highly skilled immigrant pool. Others say the backlogs can be blamed partly on India-based outsourcing companies that have abused the work-based immigration system to displace U.S. tech workers. Lifting the cap would do nothing to crack down on that problem, they say.
Fast track vs. slow lane
In 2012, Ji Li and a fellow Chinese student graduated with doctorates in biophysics from the University of Minnesota. Li's classmate listed his Taiwanese spouse's nationality on his green card application and received the visa promptly, landing a lucrative job in the private sector.
Li, a research associate at the U, landed in the backlog for mainland China natives; he's waited for two years and likely has another two to go. His wife, Chunlan, a senior accountant in a separate line for immigrants with bachelor's degrees, faces an even longer wait.
Because most career changes can jeopardize a green card application, Ji Li could not move between research labs or accept a promotion. Vitkar, who started his application in 2007, had to pass up an IT director position at his company.
"It's frustrating that we came here with high goals and high dreams, but a ceiling is imposed on us," said Li.
For the past decade, demand has outpaced the annual supply of 140,000 work-based green cards, which provide a path to citizenship. This month, all immigrants with advanced degrees face at least a roughly two-year wait; there are backlogs for applicants from the Philippines, Mexico and Central America. But by far the longest waits are for those from India and China: Immigrants who began applying more than a decade ago can now complete their applications.
In late 2014, President Obama vowed to address the backlogs and give immigrants more flexibility while they wait. But so far, such changes haven't taken effect. Instead, in August, backlogs cropped up for the first time for Indian and Chinese natives in a special green card category for immigrants "of extraordinary ability."
The Lis' immigration attorney, Sandra Feist, calls the caps "a racist tool." The disparate waits are unfair and impractical, says Debjyoti Dwivedy, a Twin Cities data storage engineer and vice president of Immigration Voice, a national advocacy group: "Employment-based immigration should be based solely on the skills you bring to the table."
The group lobbied Minnesota lawmakers to support the House bill ditching the cap, called the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. The bill also has the backing of the Chamber of Commerce nationally and in Minnesota, where president Bill Blazar says per-country restrictions don't line up with the needs of high-tech employers.
The legislation, which phases out the cap over three years, passed overwhelmingly in the U.S. House in 2011. It floundered in the Senate amid concerns about the Recession's effect on U.S. workers in high-tech fields. The bill would also increase a country cap for family reunification green cards from 7 to 15 percent.
Minnesota DFLers Tim Walz and Collin Peterson and Republicans Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer became co-sponsors more recently. In a statement, Emmer stressed that the bill would not increase immigration.
"We should be able to draw and retain talent based on merit," he said, "rather than arbitrary limits that fail to reflect the needs of American companies in a hyper competitive global marketplace."
But what about the rest?
Back in the mid-2000s, Leo Grichener, publisher at a Twin Cities Russian-language media company, helped sponsor an employee for a green card. He remembers that the employee waited for years before a visa became available. Waits for most nationalities have improved since, but Grichener worries that Russian and other immigrants could see new backlogs if the per-country cap goes away.
"I understand India and China are big countries, but other countries should have equal chances," he said.
That's a concern echoed by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which has said it supports lifting the per-country limit only in tandem with an increase in the overall supply of work-based green cards. Set in 1990, the 140,000 number is out of step with the current needs of U.S. employers, the association says.
At the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports reducing immigration, Jessica Vaughan says the cap prevents several countries from "monopolizing" the supply of employment-based green cards.
She notes most applicants are in the United States on temporary H-1B work visas for college-educated professionals, a program that has come under fire from lawmakers and others. In the 2015 fiscal year, Indians received almost 70 percent of H-1B visas, more than six times the recipients from mainland China.
She says one reason is that India-based outsourcing companies flood the system with applications, which run out in a matter of days each year.
"It's hard to see the national interest in changing the per-country caps to satisfy people who came here under the auspices of a temporary worker program that has caused harm to American workers," she said.
Dwivedy counters that allowing immigrants to get their green cards faster makes it harder for employers to take advantage of them and thus disadvantage U.S. workers. It is also good for the U.S. economy: As citizens, many skilled immigrants buy homes and start businesses that employ U.S. workers.
He said he is hopeful, given the bipartisan support for the bill and a history of passing immigration proposals in election years: "We think we have a great chance."
Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781