4.5 million people are waiting to Go Green

Restrictive immigration issues are triggering adverse ripples in the tech industry.

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Zenobia KhaleelSAN FRANCISCO: As the debate of immigration reform reaches a crescendo in Washington, the Bay Area is on tenterhooks, waiting for the outcome.

The Bay Area has more stakes in the immigration reform bill than any other city in the U.S. Immigrants constitute one-third of the Silicon Valley population. Around half a million residents here are undocumented with 65,000 students who were brought to the U.S as minors. The fate of millions in the Bay Area rests in the passing of the bill. Trapped in immigration limbo, major milestone of these people’s lives; a secure job, investing in a house, family holiday back home, college admissions, setting up a business, etc. are put on hold for years as they navigate a breakthrough in their visa status.

The primal concern of the Silicon Valley is an overhaul of the H-1B visa category (temporary visa for skilled foreign workers) and the tech lobby is pulling out all stops to ensure its passing. Indians lead the pack of the 65,000 H-1B workers, but this number doesn’t meet the tech industry’s demands when Americans aren’t available to fill jobs in the specialty areas.

The tech lobby is backing the proposal to triple H-1B visas quota since visa caps has hurt the tech sector considerably. The Bay Area gets the lion’s share of the skilled workers , but their temporary status (three to six years) in the country, creates a hiccup in the continuity of work flow in the tech industry and stagnates the careers of the individual workers.

Roughly 4.5 million people are waiting to Go Green. The quest for the permanent residency, for the Green Card, is long and frustrating, and may last decades, particularly for the Chinese and Indians. These visas are in short supply, and the immigrant queues lining up for it stretches for miles. More than half a million in this line are doctors, scientists, researchers, and engineers, who are stuck in a status quo with an uncertain future and limited prospects for career growth or entrepreneurship, as they wait for their papers to get processed.

Meanwhile, countries with flourishing economies and enterprising markets, like Singapore, Canada, India and China are rolling out the welcome mat to high skilled workers and graduates from American universities. Flexible Immigration pathways and lucrative incentives are driving techies, startups and revenue to competing countries.

Another major focus of the tech lobby is the expansion of the STEM visas for foreign graduate students. The growth rate of U.S. students majoring in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is among the lowest in any academic field. Justifiably, this is one of the rare areas of immigration reform to receive broad support from both Republicans and Democrats. An unlimited number of students with master’s degrees and doctorates from American universities could acquire a fast track to permanent residency. This initiative curbs the reverse brain drain and retains foreign scientists and engineers on American soil.

Known as dreamers, the Dream Act students are the estimated 2.1 million undocumented children of illegal immigrants who were brought to the US and is now caught in the immigration tangle. Some sixty five thousand Dream Act students are from the Bay Area. These students have aroused widespread sympathy with activists and celebrities championing their cause.

Terence Parks is a case in point. The 24-year-old Berkeley student of math and applied statistics got accepted into the Master’s program at Yale University. However, his immigration status makes him ineligible for financial aid, and he may have to renounce this opportunity.

In a You Tube video, created by the “Dream is now” campaign, Parks projects a few statistics on a chalk board: the cost of deporting 2.1 million aspiring students – 48 billion dollars in tax payer money vs. the potential income these students can generate into the economy: 174 billion dollars. Clearly this is an unbalanced equation.

The Obama administration has given them temporary reprieve from deportation (subject to conditions of academia and citizenry), but only an upheaval of current laws can grant them permanent residency.

These restrictive legal issues are triggering adverse ripples in the tech industry. Studies show that, between 1995 to 2005, 52 percent of Silicon Valley’s technology and engineering companies were founded by immigrants. The tech start-ups founded by immigrants has shrunk by one percent since 2005 and is on the verge of further decline.

The tech industry is deeply impacted by the proposed reformations bill than any other sector. Tech titans, including Microsoft, Oracle, Intel , Dell and Facebook, are lobbying Congress for hot button issues such as expanding the number of visas for highly-skilled immigrants, and shifting focus from temporary to permanent visas. A more inclusive Startup Visa will create more American jobs and give a substantial boost to the economy. The influence of the tech industry could give a much needed thrust in securing passage of a fair and efficient immigration policy.

(Zenobia Khaleel has donned a lot of hats; writer, photographer, travel enthusiast, troop leader, amateur actor, event coordinator, community volunteer, but predominantly go by the title Mom.)

To contact the author, e-mail: zenobiakhaleel@americanbazaaronline.com

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