H1B workers' Green Card blues make inroads into Washington DC

Nikhila Natarajan

"We're coming around to the view that it's time to move on. The Green Card wait is simply not worth it, it's not just about Trump" says Aparna Bhatnagar, who came to the US in 2013. Compared with others on the queue for the coveted (and elusive) permanent resident status, Bhatnagar is a newbie. The typical wait time for the average Joe on an H1B is nearly 15 years after filling out mountains of paperwork.

Bhatnagar is one among 1.5 million Indians in the US on the Green Card (GC) waitlist.

On Thursday, against the backdrop of the US Congress dome and the looming shadow of a coming immigration overhaul, a swoop of Indians from all over America called on their Senators to end the Green Card backlog which they claim is eating into the community's collective mojo.

Braving icy winds, H1B workers dressed in dark suits and armed with infographic posters fanned out to Senators' offices in America's capital city in a push to raise their visibility as "legal, high skilled" GC aspirants at a time of an overwhelming anti immigrant sentiment coming from the man holding the reins of the most powerful office in the country.

The Green Card backlog is hardly new; the departure is that Indian immigrant advocacy is gradually getting a toehold in the business of lobbying on a self-funded, bootstrapping model. All those who showed up (see video), came on their own money, booked hotels and flights, buses and trains to mark attendance at what may have been their first advocacy gig in the Capital on this scale led by Skilled Immigrants in America - a Facebook group launched by Anirban Das, Harshit Chatur, Rashi Bhatnagar and Saravana Bharthi.

Optimists clutch at the fine print of every Bill that holds promise for the H1B community, hoping Senators who enjoy face time with the President or clout in the lawmaking chambers could insert clauses that clear the India-related GC backlog.

On this, ace immigration attorney Cyrus Mehta weighs in: "There is no harm in advocating for your position and making Congress aware of your plight in the hope that a fix can be inserted into any immigration proposal. The fix can be small but significant, such as removing per country limits or not counting derivative family members. At the same time, I am not sure whether I will support Trump's plan in the hope that it will benefit you, because it will hurt a lot of others, which will ultimately come back to hurt you."

Mehta is pointing to the price which Trump and his A team of immigration advisers will want to extract for every additional clause inserted - especially the one that Trump keeps drumming up about ending family sponsorship of visas. For instance, enthusiasm among a section of Indian expats for the RAISE Act in exchange for insertion of the GC backlog clearance clause falls loosely into this category.

A recent bill sponsored by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch ( age 83 and not running for re-election in the 2018 midterms) has sparked considerable buzz among H1B workers and families. Look at the sobering counterpoint: The Dreamers Act was written by the same Orrin Hatch 17 years ago. That was well before Barack Obama exploded on to national prominence. From then till 2012, it was reintroduced in Congress often and yet the needle did not move until Obama's executive action created what we now call DACA.

Related link: 20 red flags every Indian should know about the RAISE Act

Meanwhile, the 'stay or go?' question continues to hound Indians on America's GC waitilist for years but never before so keenly and so urgently as it may be in the era of Trumpism.

The US President is selling an immigration story that from the start seeks to blur the distinctions between legal and illegal, gangs and tourists, low and high skilled, the nerd and the wingnut. By framing his argument against America's "broken immigration system" in sentences where the first portion is directionally accurate and the next a dog whistle that's wildly off the charts, Trump has succeeded in putting the onus clearly on the migrant to prove he's on the right side of the law.

This is an extraordinary time in American politics. If, by some chance, Trump does succeed in pushing his immigration plan through, it will be the largest cut in legal immigration since the 1920s.

So far, Trump's most concrete plan is on immigration and at its heart are four to-dos:

1. A path to citizenship for 1.8m undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, including all ~700,000 DACA recipients. The 1.8m minus 700,000 represent the same cohort but those who have not signed up for DACA possibly out of fear about the sunset clause inbuilt in the Obama era concession.

2. In lieu of the DACA deal, a wall and fence system along the Mexican border

3. More police in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wing - which is ramping up arrests across the country.

4. Ending the visa lottery that gives visas to people from countries with relatively lower numbers in the US and simutaneously clamping down on family sponsorship of visas. On his Twitter, Trump has tweeted the dictionary meaning of the word "chain migration" and has said this feature allows a single immigrant to bring in unlimited numbers of relatives into the US. This, for the record, is not the case.

Recent violent attacks have led Trump and his acolytes to bundle terror and family based chain migration together and sell it to a society riven by inequality and in search of a villian. Immigration has become that evil - a term that appeals to the edginess brought on by stark demographic that threaten the country's whiteness.

As the Opposition and those affected by the onslaught take refuge in data and facts and details, Trump continues to sharpen his knives for the next fight - the midterm elections and then a possible second go at the big prize in 2020.

So, where do "legal, high skilled" people on hold for their piece of pie figure in Trump's world view of "American carnage"?

"We find that DACA is getting so much attention while we are not. We are legal here, we are model (future ) citizens€¦" we heard one H1B worker say to his Senator's office. The answer was measured and precise: "We see this as Phase 2 of immigration reform. Phase 1 has to be DACA. Once that is sorted out, we can get down to legal immigration."

While that Phase 1 likely drags on for weeks, Trump turned the screws some more while no one was looking - tougher vetting and tighter screening on an "unprecedented" scale for everyone entering the United States.

One placard from the Indians' rally today offered some resistance to the twisted view of immigration that the uncompromising right wants its base to believe - "We came legally". View More