US immigration reform: From red to amber?

Written by: Sowmya Ramanan
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I am still waiting for a Green Card (GC)! Haven’t we all heard this statement over and over again? It summarises the situation for over half-a-million legal immigrants in the land of opportunities, the United States of America. Some are in a different stage in the legal immigration process, but most are in the state where the GC still feels like a very distant dream.

President raised hopes for the immigrants in USA

So when reports started trickling in about the president forcing executive action to fix the immigration system, the waiting game started on what could possibly be included in this for the high-skilled workers.

US immigration

These workers are those who came to this country as aspiring students leaving their families behind and stayed on to pursue the American dream or those workers and their families who landed here to pursue a fruitful career putting all at stake on the home front for a better life.

America is known to be a land that gives more than it takes and its all true for everything except immigration. My husband and I were part of this "waiting" community of legal immigrants who came to the US to pursue academic careers and stayed on.

Every immigrant in USA wants a stress-free life and hence waited eagerly for President Obama's announcement

Every immigrant here who had not yet been legalised through employment-based immigration was waiting to hear some positive news via executive action on immigration reform, which could make his or her life more stress free and predictable.

In the run-up to this announcement, most of the focus was on illegal immigrants who in my unbiased opinion also deserve all the actions that could unite families and provide work authorisation, and give them some recognition instead of languishing as undocumented landscape workers and cleaning houses to make their living.

But the president kept his focus on illegal immigrants

Finally on the 20th of November 2014, the president made his official announcement. The minute he uttered "High-Skilled workers", we started listening more intently because it looked like there might actually be something good for us in this whole thing! But, he spoke only about the Illegal immigrants in details and basically we had no idea what changes we were going to see in things related to high skilled workers.

Eventually reports started pouring in, lots of discussion forums had sprung up on this topic and some immigration attorneys conducted live chats and webinars to decipher what it all meant. I was glued to the computer and TV trying to gather as much information as I could for things related to the high-skilled workers, and of course got to read a lot about things in it for illegal immigrants as well.

Illegal immigrants are related to executive order while high-skilled immigrants to executive action

From what I understand, the section related to illegal immigrants, the beefing up of border security, temporary reprieve from deportation, etc. is an executive order, while aspects related to high-skilled immigrants is an executive action. In simple words, executive orders are tough to repeal and will need a comprehensive law from Congress and support of Supreme Court, which in itself can be vetoed by the President.

While executive actions are merely recommendations made by the president to act on those areas. The illegals of course need to come out of the shadows and “check-in” with the authorities to qualify and get work and travel authorisation. The Republicans and even some Democrats are against this method of implementing unilateral and aristocratic method of immigration reform.

Some decided to file a lawsuit against the president and Congress with the new-found majority in both houses threatened to shut down the government, but I am sure the president’s office has done their homework anticipating such backlash and the consequent response. I personally am interested in benefits for the legal immigrants but do feel sorry for the thousands of people who haven't been able to leave the country due to the fear of being deported.

Immigration system in US is broken

Since the president has put forth a set of rules to qualify and hasn't said everyone will get a GC or citizenship, it probably is a good thing to initiate this reform because the truth is that the immigration system in this country is broken.

It needs to be fixed and this perhaps is a beginning in that direction. All the reports prior to the announcement kept talking only about reform for illegal immigrants.

Being an illegal immigrant is more beneficial

Sometimes one felt that being an illegal immigrant probably is more beneficial! The legal immigrants' situation wasn't really a part of any discussion but in reality some changes had to be made for them too, so that people are not victims of the defective immigration system.

Situation of legal immigrants is unfortunate

The situation of legal immigrants who have all their paper work intact and pay their taxes is very unfortunate. It is pretty sad that people who have been here for over ten years are still waiting to get permanent residency (GC) status.

Most of these people including my husband, friends and me came to the US to study and then got jobs here. We have all struggled a lot to reach where we are at and always stayed ahead of the law. In most other countries, one would have secured citizenship after being a resident there for 6-7 years.

Finding job without Green Card is a tough ask

The biggest problem is that without having the GC, finding new jobs is a herculean task because not every company is willing to sponsor the work visa. The other painful aspect is being subjected to interviews to get your visa stamped at the consulate and also be at the mercy of the port authority when you re-enter the country.

So that kind of gives you an idea as to why the GC is very important and why people wait endlessly to get it even when most parameters will tell you the wait is endless. GC is issued based on country quota and every applicant including all the dependents are counted against that quota.

Over-subscription of visas in countries like China and India

Both these factors result in over-subscription of visas especially for countries like China and India resulting in a huge backlog of applications and that makes the wait excruciatingly slow.

One can't get to the GC status until the priority date/application receipt date becomes current and these dates keep changing randomly. USCIS has an indiscrete method of determining the range of priority dates it is processing and in fact, one of the executive actions as part of the reform is to bring some more transparency and predictability in how the dates are set.

It is obvious that with a huge backlog, there is never enough visas available to accommodate everyone who has applied in that year and in essence results in a 8-10 years of backlog depending on the employment-based quota (EB2/EB3). The family based immigration faces the same litmus test and is oversubscribed probably with a 4-6yr backlog.

Removal of country quota & not counting dependents towards quotas should effect a big reform

The removal of country quota and not counting the dependents towards the quota was something most immigration activists and immigrants had been hoping would be part of this reform. Those two alone will radically change or even deplete the application backlog to within 1- 2 years of wait time.

Those steps would truly qualify as reform but sadly that was not to be. The proposed actions are steps taken to provide green card like benefits i.e. work authorization, job portability and travel authorisation but will not in anyway change the time it takes to get your green card.

Some dependent spouses can also start working soon. All this of course has to go through a rule making process and there is no telling how long that could take. So dear law and rule makers, please do something FAST!! This is probably what every legal immigrant is praying for. Listen to their cry and you will not regret it and like everyone here says - God Bless America!!

The author went to the US in 2007 to pursue her Masters from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After graduation, she has been working in the US on a H1B visa and is one of the many people waiting to get Permanent Residency in the US.

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