Indian immigrants with advanced degrees could wait up to 151 years for permanent residency.
By Natasha Israni
A lonely 30-something Indian man living in the United States takes solace in the company of his little fluffy dog. Tied to a job that he dislikes, unable to look for other opportunities, he laments missing out on important family occasions in India because he cannot leave the country till his green card comes through. An Indian couple faces a difficult situation – the wife has to return to India on a one-way ticket as her work visa has expired. She reminds her husband quietly of the bills that need to be handled while she’s gone. Another husband slogs reluctantly in a consulting job that has him traveling five days a week, returning home to his wife only for short, weary weekends. He’s tied to his employer as he awaits his permanent residency. His wife, who holds a PhD, admits to the stinging envy she felt when a colleague from another country who applied for permanent residency at the same time as her, received the precious document within a year, while she is still waiting, uncertain when hers will arrive.
In most of the striking vignettes in the documentary From The Land of Gandhi the running theme is of uncertainty, of lives in limbo. The camera follows the lives of four highly skilled Indian immigrants stuck in a permanent residency backlog. The recycling is taken out, the lawn is mowed, a dosa is cooked, a car is driven to the airport through driving rain. Behind all these little moments of middle class American life is the resounding fear that the home and country these immigrants have lived in for many years is not their home after all. They do not enjoy the full rights of residents and are unclear how long the wait will be.
A decade after they came to study in the United States they are convinced that they’re facing discrimination in the workplace because of the seven percent country cap on employment-based green cards. Which means, regardless of the size of the country, be it Iceland or India, every country gets a fixed percentage of work-based green cards.
The backlog is daunting – approximately 700,000 skilled Indian immigrants along with their spouses and minor children await green cards currently. The queue moves excruciatingly slowly, resulting in what many of these immigrants describe as suffocation of choice, the very opposite of the American dream.
That suffocation echoes not only in the lives of the characters profiled in the film but also in the stories of audience members, mostly Indian or Indian American, gathered for a recent screening of the documentary in New York. Following the screening, they sit in metal chairs, cups of coffee in hand, listening intently to a panel discussion between lawyers and immigration activists on the challenges of high-skilled Indian immigration to America. They share similar problems – many of them are tied to an employer during the green card application process, often without the possibility of pay raises or growth; others cannot change careers or start businesses. Still others have had to go through painful family separations.
“Indentured servitude” – that’s how Cyrus Mehta, a New York-based immigration lawyer describes the predicament of highly skilled Indians with American jobs waiting for a green card that could take anywhere from a few years to 151 years. Yes, you read that right. The Cato Institute computed estimates of the number of years it will take for Indians applying for green cards today based on data released by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). According to their research, the biggest backlog is for EB-2 workers with advanced degrees, who might have to wait an excruciating 151 years. “Immigrants from India waiting to receive residency in the United States may die before they receive their green cards,” writes David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the institute.
But these highly educated immigrants aren’t giving up without a fight. They are hoping to spread awareness about their predicament amidst members of the U.S. Congress. They complain that their stories have been woefully ignored, underplayed or misunderstood in favor of the surge of sympathetic stories on the challenges faced by illegal immigrants.
“We need to breathe. Every day we sleep in fear,” said Jyotsna Sharma, a double masters degree holder who came to the United States in 2006. She has 28,000 people in front of her in line for a green card. This means it could take another decade. “This is an ongoing fight. Emotions run extreme,” she added. “If my husband loses his project, we are nowhere in this country. We are seeking justice for a fault that is not ours – we came from a country that is overly populated.”
Neha Mahajan is a H-4 visa EAD (Employment Authorization Document) holder working as a television producer. Her family’s green cards were approved in 2012. “People who’ve been living here 10-15 years, it’s like you’re living the life of a nomad. There is an invisible sword hanging over your head,” she said.
She’s particularly worried about her 12-year-old daughter who was two when she first arrived on American soil.
“H4 dreamers have no protection,” Mahajan explained. “At 21, it ages out, then they are not protected under any laws. They have to self deport to India. This — after having gone through the entire U.S. educational system here, without any of the benefits.”
In the United States since 2005, Sameer K works as a product manager and has been on an H1-B since 2008. His green card could take more than 20-25 years. “There is a lot of insecurity, you wonder whether it’s worth it,” he said. “We’ve done all the right things, paid our taxes, studied here, are here legally, started working here, are law abiding residents. We’re waiting for the wait to end. Everything going on in the government is making us nervous.”
By that Sameer refers to a spate of USCIS denials around H-1B amendment filings such as requests for changes in location of jobs. There is also fear that the current administration might take away the little relief that a lot of Indian immigrants hold dear – the ability of the spouse of an H-1B holder to work legally in the U.S. with an employment authorization document.
This problem is peculiar to highly educated Indian immigrants – driven by a demand for technical skills; the U.S. feeds in skilled workers and students. The funnel is large at the beginning, a lot of young Indians come in and then it narrows. Highly skilled workers from other countries receive their green cards much faster. Whereas for Indians with advanced degrees – temporary status haunts them for years, even decades.
The joint lament during the panel discussion at the church is that at a human level, these Indian PhD holders, doctors, engineers, MBAs are not different from their peers from other countries. Yet their ability to move ahead in the land of opportunity is predetermined by where they are born — which happens to be the second highest populated country in the world.
There is widespread worry that employers are nervous and don’t want to sponsor H-1Bs any more. Exhausted of the quagmire, some of those in wait have begun eyeing countries in Europe, or Canada and Australia where the path to citizenship might prove easier. When asked if there is hope around H-1B reform and other proposed changes in legal immigration, the answer of many is similar – “There is no hope, only worry and insecurity.”