The Gandhi Protests


Denied the permanent U.S. residency they'd been promised, high-skilled workers are taking to the streets in nonviolent protest

Engineers, computer programmers, and tech workers aren't known for outspoken collective action and political protest. But on July 14, up to 1,000 high-skilled, legal immigrants will gather in San Jose, Calif., to express their outrage at the U.S. government's failure to deliver on a promise to hasten the processing of their green-card applications. Many of these immigrants came to the U.S. from India on visas and have been stuck in what they say is an interminable wait for permanent residency and the freedoms it brings.

"We're stepping out to bring this issue to the attention of lawmakers and the public," says Ashish Sharma, 37, who has worked as a manager at a tech firm in Los Angeles for seven years, awaiting his green card. "The debate has been dominated by illegal immigration, but we want to put a spotlight on the hurdles we're facing as a hard-working and law-abiding group. It's time for corrective action."

Sharma says he spent $5,000 flying his wife and children to the U.S. from India to prepare green-card documents that the government originally said it would accept and then later decided not to accept. Tomorrow, he will drive more than five hours to San Jose to meet hundreds of others stuck in the green-card backlog who want to make a public statement about their frustrations.

Long Delays Spur Protests

The rally follows a symbolic action on July 10 in which hundreds of green-card applicants sent flowers to the director of U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services in a show of peaceful protest reminiscent of Mohandas Gandhi's nonviolent campaign against British rule before India gained independence in 1947. The idea for both the flower sending and the rally emerged from Immigration Voice, a group that advocates for high-tech immigrants in the U.S. on visas.

The Gandhi protests, though grounded in years of frustration and anger, were sparked by recent events. On June 12, the U.S. State Dept. issued a bulletin promising it was ready to move hundreds of thousands of green-card applicants into the final phase of processing, known as the Adjustment of Status. Visa workers rushed to complete their Adjustment of Status applications for July 2, the first day they could be submitted. Applicants scrambled to gather signatures, birth certificates, and immunization records, many taking off work and rearranging travel plans. But at the beginning of July, the State Dept. retracted the bulletin, explaining the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services had already fulfilled its quota and would not accept further applications. The immigrant community exploded, with critics saying they are the victims of bureaucratic incompetence and a broken immigration policy.

The green-card backlog has emerged because of a mismatch between the number of visa holders and the number of green cards available to them each year. Tens of thousands of foreign workers enter the U.S. on work visas each year, and many apply for green cards. But current government rules limit the number of people who can be admitted to the U.S. from any particular country to 9,800. The result is that for larger countries, including India and China, the wait for permanent U.S. residency now stretches for years. As they wait, visa workers are required to maintain the same job and salary, or they are bumped back to the long queue. That leaves many of the most educated and talented immigrants feeling stuck, sometimes to the point of hopelessness (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/21/07, "One Easy Fix for Immigration").

Joining the Chorus

Many American companies are concerned about the government's immigration policies. Tech companies, including IBM (IBM), Motorola (MOT), Oracle (ORCL), eBay (EBAY), and Intel (INTC), have pressured Congress to allow in more skilled workers on temporary and permanent visas. Google (GOOG), with many immigrants at the company including one of the founders, sent one of its top executives to make the case in Washington (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/7/07, "Immigration: Google Makes Its Case"). Bill Gates, Microsoft's (MSFT) co-founder, also made the trip to Congress to argue for a change in policy (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/8/07, "Gates to Senate: More Visas").

Immigration Voice has for several years been a forum for visa workers awaiting green cards, but it is now becoming a critical organizing tool through its Web site, volunteer leadership, and increased lobbying efforts. Immigration Voice President Aman Kapoor says green-card applicants are busy organizing a series of rallies to take place across the country on one day next month.

"This is not the usual population to go into the streets and protest; it's a group that has remained quiet and follows the rules," says Kapoor. "But people have lost faith in the system, and we have reached a tipping point in terms of frustration. There's an understanding that more dramatic action is needed."

Herbst is a reporter for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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