The placards made clear this was not your typical immigrant rights march: "We played by the rules, now it's your turn," read one. "Legal immigrants keep America competitive," read another.
High-tech workers in San Jose on federal permits are speaking out — many for the first time — over rules that leave them in personal and professional limbo.
After Congress failed to reform immigration laws for the second year in a row, hundreds of the largely India- and China-born workers protested this summer in Silicon Valley and Washington, DC. They were frustrated that the divisive debate over illegal immigration had overwhelmed efforts at comprehensive immigration reform. "I've never held a banner before, but I don't know what else to do," said Gopal Chauhan, a high-tech employee who has been waiting seven years for a green card.
Legal immigrants who feel squeezed by limits on the number of green cards issued each year are trying to separate their complaints from the protests by illegal immigrants. And high-tech companies that say they can't fill jobs because of a cap on skilled-worker visas have stepped up their long-standing plea for the cap to be raised.
"It gets too frustrating sometimes," said Sandeep Bhatia, a software engineer from Mumbai who first applied for a green card in 2001. Since then, Bhatia has completed his MBA and was joined in the US by his wife Preeti. But he cannot be promoted to a job that would use his new skills until the government finishes processing his green card.
"The Indian and Chinese economies are being fed right now with people who get tired of waiting and go home," Bhatia said. The green card application system is akin to "indentured servitude," said Kim Berry, president of the Programmers' Guild, a group that opposes current work visa laws.
Applications for work-related green cards — limited to 140,000 each year, about 9,800 per sending country — are backlogged so deep that many immigrants must plod along for years, uncertain about their future in the United States and unable to change jobs while they wait for permanent residence.
And immigration officials resorted to a lottery for H1-B work visas this summer when businesses filed — on just the first day the government was accepting applications — double the number that could be considered the whole year.
American-born tech workers who criticise the visa system argue the annual influx of 65,000 foreign workers like Bhatia takes jobs from Americans and puts a damper on all salaries. But the industry is putting its muscle behind its foreign workers.
"They're the smartest in their field, recognised as essential to the companies' growth, yet this immigration system subjects them to second-class status," said Robert Hoffman, a vice president with business software company Oracle Corp.