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Workers, many in high tech jobs, organize to protest long waits for green cards and threat to end work permits for spouses

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: PETER WONG - A panel listens to Ravi Vathsai, a Portland State University student soon to turn 21, at a forum Sunday, March 18, at the Hillsboro Public Library. The gathering drew about 100 people, mostly immigrants from India with U.S. visas (H-1B) issued to high-skilled workers, who are protesting the long waits for green cards for permanent residency and urging Congress to act.Like thousands of young immigrants in Oregon and across the country, Ravi Vathsai came to the United States when he was a child.

Like many of them, Vathsai has big dreams. He became interested in a health career, volunteered at hospitals, worked with Alzheimer's patients and studied for a bachelor's degree in biology at Portland State University.

Unlike those known as "dreamers" — young people brought to the United States illegally when they were children — Vathsai is here legally.

But when he turns 21 in June, and earns his degree, Vathsai will no longer be shielded from potential deportation — unless he is admitted to medical school — because he will lose his H4 visa as a dependent of a high-skill immigrant.

"If it does not go through, I will have to leave this country and the state I love and grew up with, the family and the friends I have made," Vathsai said.

"I came here when I was 10, so I have no idea how the other side of the country (India) works."

Vathsai is not the only one entangled in a different set of immigration controversies emerging in Washington, D.C., in California's Silicon Valley and in Seattle.

But not in Oregon — until March 18, when several of them spoke up at a gathering attended by more than 100 at the Hillsboro Public Library.

Organizers said these intertwined issues affect about 3,000 people, many of them residents of Beaverton and nearby areas. (They said about 300,000 immigrants from India are affected nationally.)

"I think it is horrifying that you would come here and give your lives, your time and your work, and raise your children here, when you have to wait years to learn whether you can stick around," said Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski, the only elected official at the meeting.

"It's not a tolerable situation."

Waiting and watching

Vamsi Menta is a consultant for a Beaverton company, but he had worked on a project for The Standard, an insurance company based in Portland.

When it was completed, the senior project manager tried to hire Menta full time. But under the rules for Menta's visa — issued to high-skill immigrants and known as an H1-B — Menta had to stay in his current job or lose his place in line for permanent residency, in the form of a green card.

"This is nothing against my employer," Menta said. "He tried his best to get me hired. But that is not possible with the employee-employer relationship I have with my current employer."

However, because of a per-country cap on green cards issued annually, Menta will be waiting a long time — perhaps decades.

Meanwhile, Bharkavi Rani has a different perspective on the visa issue.

After earning a degree in computer science and working for a U.S. bank in India, she obtained an H1-B visa for a job at the same bank in Charlotte, N.C. — home to Bank of America, the second largest in the United States and ninth in the world.

Then she married a high-skill immigrant, also on an H1-B visa, who lived in a different state.

"I chose to wait for my H1-B visa to come here," she said.

"I knew if I'd gotten here on an H4 (visa for a dependent spouse), I could not work and would have to depend on my spouse for everything... I did not want to do that."

When then-President Barack Obama changed the rules in 2015 to grant permission for dependent spouses to work, Rani was ecstatic.

"We had no idea how long we were going to wait in the queue to get a green card," she said.

"The only reason I chose to come here and switch to H4 was because of the work authorization that lets me keep my family together."

She is concerned what will happen if that work permission — known as an employment authorization document — is revoked by the Department of Homeland Security under President Donald Trump.

"We consider Oregon and the United States our home. We want to give back to this country for being here," she said. "If I cannot apply my skills to give back to this country, it puts my family and me in a depression. That is not good — and it is not fair."

Intertwined issues

The pending policy shifts appear contradictory.

Trump, in his 2017 inaugural address, proclaimed an "America First" stance and has been critical of immigration policy.

But in his Jan. 30 State of the Union address, Trump called on Congress to shift the basis for immigration policy from family-based reunification — its critics call it "chain migration" — to immigrant skills, similar to what Canada has.

Still, the Department of Homeland Security is moving to tighten H1-B visas by requiring employers — mostly high-tech companies — to show more justification for hiring immigrants and that comparable U.S. workers cannot be obtained.

Several issues involve immigrants from India:

• They obtain most of the H1-B visas issued. According to Homeland Security statistics for the 2015 budget year, released in 2016, immigrants from India constitute 71 percent of the 275,317 H1-B visa holders. China was next with 9.7 percent, followed by Canada and South Korea, 1.3 percent each, and the Philippines, 1.1 percent. Mexico ranked eighth at .7 percent.

• Of the 1 million green cards issued annually for permanent residency, 860,000 are based on family considerations, and 60,000 for executives and managers. That leaves just 80,000 — and a single nation such as India is limited to 5,600 green cards per year. (Unused slots are not filled.)

Advocates say at that rate, immigrants from India now will have to wait 92 years to obtain their green cards.

• H4 visa holders are spouses and children under age 21, whose status is tied to H1-B immigrant visas. But if Obama-era work permission documents are ended, the Department of Homeland Security will effectively end jobs for H4 dependent spouses, who are mostly women.

Pending action

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley urged the agency not to change rules that would undermine two-earner couples, which have become increasingly necessary to maintain household incomes — and not just by immigrants.

"The success of this model is undeniable," said his letter, which was read aloud by Merkley field representative Jagjit Nagra. "We should not reverse it by denying H4 dependent-spouse visa holders the opportunity to enter the labor market as soon as possible."

The letter was co-signed by Sen. Ron Wyden and all three U.S. representatives from the Portland metro area,

Other issues require congressional action.

A pending bill (HR 392) would lift the per-country caps on green cards. The bill has 318 co-sponsors — 100 more than a simple majority —including all five U.S. representatives from Oregon.

Indian immigrants have allies from business.

Peter Seiler was the senior project manager at The Standard who tried to hire Menta, but could not after the entanglement of Menta's visa status.

"I want to see more opportunity and fewer things standing in the way of capitalizing on hard work, putting down roots and making things better for all our lives," he said.

Things were different in 1972, when Jaisen Mody came from India on a student visa, was hired by Portland General Electric and obtained a green card. Today he is a PGE general manager in charge of multibillion-dollar power generation and management.

"Now, just listening to all of you, it's such a gruesome task to get a green card. Your stories are so compelling and so real, it's sad how bad they are," he said.

"Shame on us that this situation has happened here."

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