New immigration bill raises hope and skepticism within Indian community

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New U.S. citizens wave American flags during a naturalization ceremony at the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse in Tucson, Ariz., on Sept. 16, 2016. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by David Paul Morris

It is ironic and very telling that during the Feb. 16, 2021 townhall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the first after President Joe Biden came into the Oval Office, several minutes were devoted to immigration issues, but only pertaining to the undocumented, refugees, and asylum seekers, completely disregarding the plight of tens of thousands of Indians (and Chinese) backlogged in an unfair system waiting patiently for their turn through legal channels.

However, the new U.S. Immigration Act of 2021 that began making its way through Capitol Hill, holds out some hope in its bid to remove the 7-percent country quota for employment based immigrants that affects Indian immigrants way more than any other; and hopefully bringing in other regulations that would speed up the green card and naturalization process.

Introduced by Congresswoman Linda Sanchez in the House, and soon to be introduced in the Senate by New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, there is hope for these legal immigrants some of whom could be waiting for a ridiculous period to get the prized permanent residency.

The final verdict on the bill remains doubtful in its present form. But there are a few things Indian immigrants can look forward to.

President Biden announced his goals on the first day he took office Jan. 20, to fix the green card system. The bill eliminates the per-country caps for employment-based green cards while increasing it for family-based green cards from 7 percent to 20 percent.

“I have not seen the details of the draft bill. At this stage, the impact on Indians living in the USA, whether illegal or awaiting processing of their green cards is hard to predict,” former U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Ombudsman Prakash Khatri, told News India Times. Khatri, who is currently an immigration lawyer in Greater Washington, D.C. recommended the Indian American community needed to own this issue.

“The Indian American community certainly needs to ramp up its efforts to ensure that those technology workers and other highly skilled individuals who continue to wait for years and years for their green card processing, due to the current national origin- based system, are moved to the front of the line before those without status living in this country illegally are given permanent residence,” Khatri said.

Ultimately, Congress has to pass any legislation before President Biden signs it.

“We don’t know if this bill will pass. But if it doesn’t happen, we will see a lot of executive actions. The bill will get broken up into different parts,” says Diya Mathews, an immigration attorney in New Jersey.

“The focus needs to be on how quickly the House and the Senate introduce and pass bills and then reconcile any differences so that a bill can go to the President’s desk,” Khatri noted.

Those who have supported bringing in foreign high skilled workers, including the tech industry which is heavily lobbying for this on grounds that the U.S. economy benefits in more ways than one, argue making the road smoother for H-1B visa holders and foreign entrepreneurial visas would be nothing but a plus for the U.S. economy.

Similarly, Khatri maintains that if the Biden Administration moves to prioritize specific targeted legislative efforts such as the suspension of country-based limits for the EB-1, EB-2 and EB-3 employment immigration categories and temporarily increase the current annual limits on employment based immigrants, this nation would benefit in multiple ways.

“Such a move would (also) greatly benefit the Indian highly skilled workforce that has been trapped in the Congressional inability to do its job,” says Khatri.

Doug Rand, former assistant director for Entrepreneurship in President Obama’s Office of Science & Technology Policy, and architect of the H-4 Employment Authorization Document for spouses of H-1B visa applicants, notes that executive orders may be the President’s way of sidelining the weeks, months, or years it may take Congress to bring in any comprehensive immigration reform like the one he is prescribing.

In a blog entry, Rand says Biden’s plan “would change the way our legal immigration system works,” by including for example, “various methods to clear out the lengthy green card and citizenship backlogs and the far too long wait.”

Among the many ways the bill would follow on Biden’s proposals is to clear out backlogs by exempting several categories of immigrants from green card caps, viz. PhD graduates from U.S. universities who specialize in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); spouses and minor children of green card holders; and even a pilot program that would allow municipal governments to sponsor foreign skilled workers if they are facing shortages in specialized areas.

Roll Call news outlet predicted the new U.S. Immigration Act of 2021 will face an uphill battle.

So does Anirban Das, president of Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA), an advocacy organization for H-1B visa holders and families.

“The bill has some good points that we have always pushed for like eliminating country caps, exempting PhDs from American universities in STEM fields. At the same time, we are obviously concerned by the size of the bill,” Das told News India Times. “Things always get sticky with such bills with lots of amendments that eventually kill the bill.”

Das notes that currently there are around 1 million Indian immigrants in the backlog, or an estimated 300,000 families. Since 2010, no one has been given their green card. “It will take anywhere to 150 years for an Indian who files for a Green Card now  to get it, so they do not  have a chance,” Das notes.

In fact, so far as the high skilled Indian immigrant community is concerned, he expects nothing more from the Biden Administration. “Our fate cannot be decided by Executive Orders. It is only the Congress that can make any change. So we don’t have expectations from Biden. The one thing he could do and has done is rescind the ban H-4 Employment Authorization Document,” brought in by the Obama Administration in its waning years, and its near revocation by the Trump Administration.

Unfortunately, as Mathews points out, “For good or bad, my clients are mostly in legal status. And they are not a priority for lobbyists even though they play such an important role in the U.S. economy. And 80 percent of those with H-1B visas are Indians.”

Mathew’s heart goes out to the children of H-1B visa holders who are aging out (21 years and above). “Every week I deal with at least one case of aging-out. I get very emotional on this,” she says.

Das and Mathews, like most advocates for immigration believe the bill on Capitol Hill is a first step, but the promise it holds for Indian and other immigrants aspiring to live in America, is distant. Whether a new administration can live up to its promise is to be seen.

President Biden hit the nail on the head as the section on immigration concluded at the Town Hall in Wisconsin, when he said, “… one of the reasons why we have been able to compete with the rest of the world so well is most of our major competitors are xenophobic.”

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