Thirty-eight-year-old Amey first went to America to study at Carnegie Mellon University in 2006. Both he and his wife, who works at one of the world’s top biotech companies, are on the H-1B, a non-immigrant visa allowing foreigners to live and work in the US. One of Amey’s previous employers applied for his green card in 2011. Almost a decade later, a green card still eludes him.
“We’ve been waiting patiently for our green card since nine years now and it will likely take another 10-plus years till we get it,” says Amey, who like the other Indians in America whom we spoke to for this story asked that we publish only their first names to avoid drawing attention from US immigration services.
Over the last decade, Amey has worked at several technology startups. “I helped them launch award-winning products, hire teams, and raise millions of dollars in venture funding,” he says.
A few years ago, he and his wife opened a mom-and-pop store in suburban Philadelphia where they hired around 15 local workers. Today, they live in Los Angeles with their two-year-old son and a five-year-old Goldendoodle.
For millions of Indians who went to the US on the H-1B visa in the early 2000s, a green card was a tangible next step to security and freedom. The chances of getting one now, however, look grim. Indians ranging from those working on the frontlines in America’s fight against Covid-19 at hospitals to those employed at tech behemoths like Netflix and Google are among those on the interminable line for green cards. Immigration Voice, a US nonprofit, has been sharing their stories on social media to help drum up support for a group it refers to as “legal high-skilled future Americans.”
Of the total 1 million green cards given out every year, just 140,000 are for employment-based applicants. The majority of the rest goes to family-based applicants. And because of the annual 7% country cap on green card allocations in the employment route, Indians face unprecedented backlogs.
“The bottom line is that the H-1B system is old and has many flaws, but has become the main vehicle for great foreign-born talent to enter the US either directly or after being employed as students” on OPT visas, says Ran Harnevo, the CEO of Homeis, an online network for expats and foreign-born nationals around the world. “There are super-talented employees that totally rely on this visa for several years with (a) very slim opportunity to evolve to a better visa or a permanent residency.”
By the start of 2030, the green card backlog will exceed 2.4 million petitions, virtually ending all legal employment immigration from India and China, the countries with the most employment-based green card petitions, the Cato Institute’s immigration policy analyst David Bier wrote in a March 2020 brief.
Shackled to the H-1B
Getting the H-1B visa—a pre-requisite before an employer can sponsor an employee—is a herculean task in itself.
Dhaval, 34, immigrated to the US from India in 2008 to pursue a PhD in computer science. He thought life would be much easier once he completed his doctorate but his name was not drawn in the H-1B lottery for four years. His optional practical training (OPT) period ran out and he had to enroll in a masters program that offered CPT (curricular practical training) to continue working.
“In these five years of constant struggle with getting the immigration work visa, even after having the highest possible level of education, I lost valuable time in starting the green card process,” he said. In an upsetting twist of fate, he finally got the visa—but then his company decided to stop sponsoring green cards due to constant immigration rule changes carried out by the Trump administration.
H-1B visa-holders typically hesitate to change or quit jobs, since losing H-1B status could get them kicked out of the country. Even if Dhaval switches jobs and gets a new sponsor within the year, the wait for a green card could be longer than 80 years.
US president Donald Trump’s hardline anti-immigrant stance has made a historically onerous process all the more challenging. Under his administration, application denials and requests for evidence both have gone up.
During a recent vacation, Amey’s visa drew extra scrutiny for reasons not known to him. He spent close to 40 days working remotely from another country until his visa was approved.
Dallas resident Anuja, a post-doctoral research fellow in biochemistry, has faced similar issues. “Being on a visa has many problems, especially in my field, which comes under the technology alert list,” she says. “When I travelled to renew my student visa towards the end of [my] PhD in 2013, I had to spend five weeks in India to receive clearance to travel back to the USA.”
Dhaval, Amey, and Anuja all give the same reason for wanting a green card: freedom. The freedom to change jobs and fields, to travel, to start companies, to buy properties and put down roots, and more.
In spite of waiting it out for years, several green card aspirants have gotten fed up.
“President Trump’s visa restrictions are a ‘kiss of death’ for American innovation, and signal to the most vulnerable communities that their immense social contributions simply don’t matter anymore,” said Homeis’ Harnevo. “He has shattered their American dream, and now they have nowhere to turn.”
Trying to move on
Canada, for one, makes immigration much easier than the US, and Indian-born workers in the US are taking note.
Dhaval opted for Canada’s merit-based immigration system in 2019 and got permanent residency status within a year. He plans to make the move in the coming months.
According to the Cato Institute, the number of Indians applying for permanent residency in Canada has doubled since 2016. Amey, too, started looking into migrating to Canadian around a year ago, citing “uncertainty, the political rhetoric, and the constant anxiety related to the American legal immigration process.” The family is in the final stages of getting permanent residency in Canada.
But not everyone has an easy way out.
Anuja, who hails from Mumbai, is still holding out hope for permanent residency in the US because “the kind of research I am involved in doesn’t happen in India,” she says. She is trying to get her green card via the EB1 route, nicknamed the Einstein visa since it’s reserved for people who are highly acclaimed in their fields. But the fear of things not working out is palpable.
“If we were to lose our jobs today,” she says, “it would mean a flight back to India despite having spent our young years being as productive as possible in researching and mentoring, paying taxes, and being law-abiding citizens…not to mention visa issues in India due to having US-citizen kids if you decide to go back.”