A contradiction in US immigration policy is putting kids of high-skilled workers at risk of deportation

Quantum physicists have now entangled whole clouds of atoms.
Quantum physicists have now entangled whole clouds of atoms.
Image: AP Photo/Michael Probst
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

As Congress debates the fate of America’s DREAMers, a group of far more privileged young immigrants is facing a similar problem: The children of highly skilled foreign professionals.

Brought by parents working in booming industries like tech and energy, thousands of non-citizen children are growing up in the US. Once they turn 21, they will be required to leave the country unless their parents become permanent residents, also known as “green card” holders. Such skilled workers should qualify easily for green cards, but there’s a catch: Arbitrary limits on the number of available green cards have created a massive backlog of eligible families. For Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Mexican workers, the wait to receive a merit-based green card can take up to 70 years. 

“Often times at the spelling bee, or at biology or maths contests, you will see kids of Asian origin doing very well, but the untold story is that many of these kids are stuck in this backlog, says Aman Kapoor, co-founder of Immigration Voice, an advocacy group primarily representing highly skilled Indian workers. He estimates that 250,000 to 350,000 children in the US are at risk of aging out of their parents’ visa coverage. And because they entered the country legally, they don’t even qualify for DACA protection.

His organization has a solution: The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017 (HR 392). Introduced more than a year ago, the bill seeks to speed up green-card processing by removing quotas on merit-based green cards. And because its constituents can afford it, the bill sweetens the proposed deal by promising to put an extra $4 billion into the federal government’s pocket.

Stuck in limbo

In 2007, chemical engineer Reji Skaria moved to Sugar Land, Texas, to work for an oil and gas company with his wife and two kids. Their children were only a month old, and five years old, at the time. Now the oldest, Rohan, is 16.

Skaria applied for a green card back in 2013. He’s still waiting. If he can’t get it before his son turns 21, Rohan will have to leave the country. Skaria says he somewhat regrets his decision to leave London for the US. “I feel like I got fooled,” he says, adding that his Indian friends in the UK are now citizens.

The people whose families end up in limbo are precisely the ones who US employers seek to attract—the ones with skills that can’t be matched by American workers. It would be in the US’s interest to help these immigrants stay, to progress in their careers, to become entrepreneurs, and create jobs for others. Instead, due to their visas, they are stuck in roles that they might have outgrown.  They can’t change employers or start new businesses.

Yogi Chhabra, 52, works as a mechanical engineer in Louisville, Kentucky. He moved to the US with his wife and three-year-old in 1998. His second son, born in the US, is an American citizen. But after turning 21, his oldest Dishant was cast into the hell of visa uncertainty. 

To attend college, Dishant was awarded a student visa under the Obama administration. He doesn’t know if he’ll be as lucky under the Trump administration’s stricter scrutiny once he graduates and applies for graduate school. And if Dishant later fails to find a job quickly, he could again run out of time to procure a work visa. At every step, he risks having to leave the country where he grew up. “We are soon going to be a broken family,” Chhabra says.

Chhabra says he wishes he’d left the US to go back to India when his kids were younger. At the time, he says, he hoped the Obama administration would help immigrants stuck in the quota system. Now his career is stuck: He can’t change employer or accept a promotion, or his paperwork would have to be started from scratch.

Contradictory immigration philosophies

There are contradictory policies on immigration in the US.

The country’s pro-business mindset allows an unlimited number of talented workers to be hired from any country (primarily with H1B, J and O visas). After six years on a work visa, they must either apply for a merit-based green card or leave the country, a system that encourages highly-skilled people to apply for permanent residency.

But the country’s diversity-oriented mindset also requires that all nationalities be treated equally. Therefore, it offers the same quota of merit-based green cards cards to each nationality: Just 9,800 annually.

This probably wouldn’t be a problem if merit-based immigration attracted equal number of immigrants from all countries. However, it’s overwhelmingly Indians who receive merit-based work visas, and who therefore end up requesting merit-based green cards. Of the 500,000 to 800,000 people who enter the US on skills-based visas, 70% are Indians.

Every year, up to 150,000 Indians apply for a merit-based green card (as opposed to a family-based green card). They join the line of the hundreds of thousands who qualified but didn’t get it the year before, and the year prior to that. It is a very long line.

In total, about 1.5 million immigrants from India, China, Mexico and the Philippines have already been recognized by the US labor department as worthy of a green card, with the official certification that that there is no American “willing, able, and qualified” to do their job. But none have been able to switch from visa to green card, due to national quotas.

HR 392 could pay for a big piece of Trump’s wall

The proposal to lift country-based immigration quotas has had broad bipartisan support for quite some time. Sponsored by Kevin Yoder, a Republican congressman from Kansas, the HR 392 bill is also backed by 165 House Democrats and 142 House Republicans.

But that hasn’t been enough to force a decision on the bill, which has yet to be brought to the House floor. A new incentive has been added to make it palatable to Trump, who would have to sign it into law: Backlogged applicants would pay up to $2,500 for their green card applications to be processed.

That’s a steep price, Kapoor says, compared to the processing costs of a green card (typically, a couple hundred dollars). But it’s less than the legal expenses that backlogged green card applicants regularly incur to maintain a lawful immigration status while backlogged. ”[Immigrant Voice] did an internal poll of applicants stuck in the current backlog, and 100% said that they would rather pay the fees and be done with their green card, and go on to live a normal life,” Kapoor said.

Multiplied for the 1.5 million backlogged applicants, the bill would put about $4 billion into the government’s pocket.

Advocates are hoping to make the proposal part of a larger raft of immigration reform measures that Congress is deliberating on this week, particularly given the similarities between children affected by the DACA repeal and the children of backlogged immigrants. From military spending to infrastructure, that extra $4 billion could go a long way, including toward paying for a border wall with Mexico (now estimated to cost $18 billion in the first phase).

This might be president Trump’s chance to finally make someone else pick up the tab on his much-promised border wall.