How Skilled Immigrants Found a Voice


Grassroots group Immigration Voice has helped tech workers organize and score victories in Washington

It was in December, 2005, when Aman Kapoor reached a boiling point. The computer programmer at Florida State University had been waiting four years for his green card—the key to permanent residency in the U.S.—and he had been obliged to stay in the same job at the same pay the entire time that he waited. Then a U.S. House-Senate conference failed to move forward with legislation to relieve the growing green-card delays, dashing the India native's hopes once again.

Kapoor decided to start a Web site for frustrated immigrants, called Immigration Voice. While there were community message boards and the like online, he wanted a place where skilled workers waiting for their green cards could share their ideas and frustrations. He also hoped that there would be some sort of collective power from the skilled immigrant community if they got organized. "Misery loves company, and I was looking for a way to channel all the frustration we were sharing with each other," says Kapoor. "Instead of feeling hopeless, we decided to use our right to association and push reform of the broken system together."

Making Themselves Heard

Legal, highly skilled immigrants say they have felt overlooked in the immigration debate, which has focused largely on the fate of 12 million illegal unskilled workers. But this week a formerly diffuse and quiet group made its first concrete mark in Washington in helping push the U.S. government to reverse an early July decision refusing applications to speed up green-card processing (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/18/07, "A Green Light on the Road to Green Cards," and 7/17/07, "The Gandhi Protests Pay Off").

In just 19 months, Kapoor's once-fledgling Web forum has become a powerful political force. In the days leading up to the U.S. government's decision to allow green-card applicants to apply for the next phase of processing, Immigration Voice and other advocacy groups met with senior White House officials to share their concerns. U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose district includes Silicon Valley, has been outspoken in her support of those stuck in the green-card backlog, and she has pledged to ensure that the U.S. government keeps its promise to speed up green-card processing.

An Active Membership

Immigration Voice (immigrationvoice.org) now has a membership of 21,000 people in the green-card queue. The queue is swelling into the hundreds of thousands because only 9,800 green cards are allotted to each country each year. Tens of thousands of visa holders from countries including India and China are left waiting for years. Through the Web site, Immigration Voice members share ideas and strategies, provide words of support for each other, and organize local meetings.

In 2006, the nonprofit group raised $200,000, mainly through member donations. Its 2007 goal is $500,000; so far, it has raised about half that amount. Members are not required to pay dues, but they are encouraged to make donations or opt for a $50 monthly contribution. Kapoor says the group is open to gifts from other sources, but declined to name other contributors.

A key reason for Immigration Voice's success has been the active participation of its members. Members conceived of and organized a symbolic flower delivery to U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services in a sign of peaceful protest July 10-12, followed by a rally in the heart of Silicon Valley on July 14. Twelve volunteers, including Kapoor, make up Immigration Voice's "core team," which directs the Web site and runs the day-to-day operation. Members of this team, along with individual members, contribute much of their own time and money to the lobbying effort. Kapoor says he has spent about $64,000 of his own money in the last 19 months, largely on travel to and from Washington.

Learning the Political Ropes

Tamsen Mitchell, a software manager in San Francisco and Immigration Voice member, says she has recently devoted up to 30 hours a week to work with the group, especially in preparation for the July 14 rally. A native of Britain, Mitchell arranged police permits, made banners, reached out to employers, and mobilized community members to come to the rally. She has also met with Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to explain the urgency of resolving the green-card backlog. "July's bulletin fiasco affected so many of us that we realized we needed to hold the government accountable, and that's what we helped do," says Mitchell. "We're proving that the collective voice of thousands can help make change."

Immigration Voice is becoming increasingly savvy at navigating the terrain of the Washington scene. The group has hired top lobbying firm Patton Boggs to assist in strategy. It also maintains contact with U.S. tech companies such as Microsoft (MSFT), Oracle (ORCL), Intel (INTC), and Cisco (CSCO) that employ highly skilled immigrants (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/19/07, "Beware the H-1B Visa"). These companies have united in their own lobbying group, Compete America, which serves as a complement to Immigration Voice's legislative efforts pressing for faster green-card processing.

Channeling the Group's Passion

More power and visibility also has its risks, especially considering the high emotional pitch of the immigration debate in the U.S. But Kapoor says the risk of a backlash is necessary for a chance at success. "There is that risk if we are more visible that we will get targeted by anti-immigrant groups," says Kapoor. "But without us, there is no one to represent the interests of this community. We don't want taxation without representation, so we'll continue to push for reform."

For now, Kapoor says a major challenge is containing the enthusiasm of the group and channeling it into an organized strategy. Self-formed state chapters of Immigration Voice have begun to push for the next item on the group's agenda: calling for the reinstatement of more than 100,000 green cards that have gone unused since 1994 because of delays in processing those allotted (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/19/07, "Skilled Workers May See Green Card Surge").

Kapoor says the passion of members will drive the movement forward, but only if it's centrally coordinated. "We've gone from a virtual community to a very vocal and active one," says Kapoor. "The goal now is not only to keep up the momentum, but to direct it in the most effective way."

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