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Foreign workers with skills find open door

After waffling, the U.S. suspends the wait to apply for green cards.

July 21, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The decision by U.S. immigration officials to reverse policy and open a monthlong filing window for work-based green card applicants drew elation this week from those aiming to fill vacancies in healthcare, high tech and other industries facing labor shortages.

"This is the best thing that's ever happened to me," said Gopinath Gopalsamy, a 33-year-old software engineer who came to Los Angeles from India in 2000 with a temporary work visa.

The ability to file his application for permanent residency, Gopalsamy said, would mean a bonanza of immediate benefits: His wife, an information technology specialist, would receive a work permit. The couple could more easily travel back to India. And Gopalsamy could accept promotions and other job changes not permitted under his temporary work status without losing his place in line to apply for a green card.

Gopalsamy is one of tens of thousands of foreign-born professionals whose fates hung in the balance this month as immigration officials flip-flopped over whether to open the window for new green card applications.

Microsoft, for instance, said the change affected 4,000 of its foreign-born employees and their families.

U.S. officials unexpectedly announced last month that there would be no wait to apply for employment-based permanent visas during July, the first green light given to all skilled workers in three years.

Earlier this year, skilled and professional workers had faced waits of as long as six years to file petitions, which must be sponsored by their employers, to change their status from temporary to permanent residency.

Tens of thousands of software engineers, registered nurses and other workers rushed to get their applications in at the start of the month. On July 2, however, officials abruptly revoked their decision and announced that no applications would be accepted, after all.

The turnabout provoked furious protests. Immigration attorneys threatened lawsuits. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) initiated an inquiry as chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee. Microsoft and Oracle, among other high-tech firms, made their disappointment known to the White House and policymakers.

Silicon Valley workers staged a rally in San Jose.

Seeking to emulate Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent protest methods, Indian high-tech workers led a national campaign to flood U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services chief Emilio Gonzalez with hundreds of flower bouquets, notes of appreciation for his work -- and urgent requests to reverse the reversal.

This week, Gonzalez agreed to do just that, announcing that the applications would be accepted.

"There was intense public reaction," said Bill Wright, spokesman for the citizenship and immigration agency, in explaining the reason for the reversal. "We heard that and did listen."

Wright said at least 55,000 applications had been filed this month; the window will remain open until Aug. 17.

A petition is only the first step in obtaining a green card, which can still take years, but filing one allows applicants and their families to work, travel freely and change jobs.

Some critics say the brouhaha highlighted the immigration system's weaknesses in efficiently processing visa requests.

Among the 1 million green cards issued annually, 140,000 are given to workers sponsored by employers; the rest go to family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

But 10,000 of the prized work visas went unused in the last fiscal year and were tossed out because they weren't issued in time to meet the deadline, according to immigration experts.

Asked why that happened, Wright replied: "I don't know."

The House immigration subcommittee planned "further oversight" to make sure that immigration officials follow through on the visas, according to a subcommittee aide.

Ginny Terzano, Microsoft spokeswoman, said the firm's difficulties in getting timely work visas for its foreign high-tech talent was one reason it decided to open a development center this fall in Vancouver, Canada.

Microsoft has 3,000 openings for "core technical positions" and finds it increasingly difficult to fill them with homegrown Americans because of the declining interest in math and science, she said.

Aside from high-tech firms, other big winners in the recent decision to accept green card applications include hospitals and their nursing employees.

Glendale Adventist Medical Center, whose website lists 60 openings for registered nurses, has already filed four applications for foreign nurses and "will be filing as many as possible in the allotted time," spokeswoman Alicia Gonzalez said.

Carl Shusterman, a Los Angeles immigration attorney, said his office had filed more than 100 visa applications this month for high-tech workers and registered nurses and had been flooded with phone calls this week from more potential applicants.

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