Sanket Sant, a citizen of India, came to the United States at age 21, earning a master’s degree in engineering, followed by a doctorate and then landing a well-paying job at a firm making semiconductor equipment. Then, he waited for the US government to decide if he could stay.
“I know this country better than my own country, and I still feel like an outsider,” said Sant, 35, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas in 2006, and has been waiting for federal officials to approve his green card application for six years. “That’s the thing that bothers me.”
That is also the predicament of tens of thousands of workers here in the heart of the tech industry who were born overseas and educated in the US. Though not living in poverty or in the shadows, as are migrant workers who are here illegally, they are nevertheless in a bureaucratic limbo while they wait in a long line for a green card.
Now, though, Congress is poised to end their uncertainty. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws on a bipartisan vote, and sent the measure to the full Senate. The bill would make it much easier for science, math and engineering graduates of US universities to become permanent residents.
Crucially, it would also lift the limits on how many immigrants are allowed in from each country, which has meant that citizens of populous countries like India end up waiting far longer than others.
The provisions to ease the green card process enjoy bipartisan support, reflecting a stark reality: Nearly half of all engineering graduate students at US varsities are from abroad.
Technology companies, like Facebook and Microsoft, want to hire many more of them, which is why they have lobbied to make it quicker for them to get permanent residency. So has the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a group that advocates for US workers.
Still, not everyone is a fan. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, who has testified against the legislation, said easy, unlimited access to green cards for math and science graduates could encourage the emergence of “visa mills,” or schools established just to sell access to the United States.
He said: “American young people with bachelor’s degrees see these occupations distorted by large-scale admissions of foreign workers. That then changes their own decision making about what to do in the future.”
The green card provisions have been obscured by the louder, more polarizing fight between industry and labour over foreign guest worker visas, known as H1Bs. But they stand to have a far greater impact on the men and women who drive this industry.
Sant, like many of his friends, was drawn to the US for higher education. In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available from the National Science Foundation, a government agency, 45 percent of master’s and doctoral students in engineering were from abroad, up from 35% in 1990 and 24 percent in 1980.
At some varsities, the share of foreign students is even higher. At Carnegie Mellon University, which has one of the most prestigious engineering schools in the world, 62 percent of engineering graduate students came from abroad, and at the Rochester Institute of Technology, 56%.
This year, at the University of Southern California, the figure is 68 percent, according to university officials. Among those who come to study in this country, about 1 in 3 end up staying on temporary work visas, mainly through the H-1B program. A study by the Brookings Institution said in 2010, 30 percent of those who were working on H-1B visas were former students at US universities.
Their wait for permanent residency can be frustratingly long, depending on their homeland.
According to data from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, more than 150,000 of them have filed for green cards since 2010; nearly a third of them are from India, the largest single block.
Kartik Shah, 29, was among them. A native of Mumbai, he went to the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, for a master’s degree in electrical engineering. He graduated in 2007 and swiftly landed a job as a software engineer at Cisco’s headquarters in San Jose, just south of here.
The company soon filed a green card application on his behalf, which it says it does for the vast majority of its H-1B workers. The government cleared his application, essentially ruling that his skills were needed. Then, it told him to wait.
So far the wait has been six years, and he has no idea when it will end. He is nervous about exploring other job options, for fear of losing his place in the green card line.
Two evenings a week, he rides the bus an hour each way from his office in San Jose to the University of California, Berkeley, where he is working toward a master’s in business administration. Perhaps, by the time he finishes, in the spring of 2014, his green card will be ready and he will be able to put his MBA to use.