Skilled Immigrants Turn to K Street

Shilpa Ghodgaonkar was inspired by an e-mail call to action.
Shilpa Ghodgaonkar was inspired by an e-mail call to action. "I just couldn't keep quiet anymore," she said. She has an MBA but can't work until she gets a green card. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On the December day when Congress killed a budget amendment that might have allowed him to become an American a little sooner, Aman Kapoor started a movement.

He did not march through streets, carry signs, wave a flag from here or there. He did not walk off the job or file out of school. The computer programmer simply went online to a message board tracked by thousands of people in his predicament: highly skilled foreigners waiting years for their green cards.

"I think we can do better and really create the impact with organized effort," he wrote. "To achieve this we need a group of individuals who have shown commitment and motivation in this forum."

The next night, a dozen people living across the United States shed their Internet handles -- Kapoor's was "WaldenPond," a nod to his hero, Henry David Thoreau -- and addressed one another by name on a conference call that lasted an hour. Today, just four months later, the organization they dubbed Immigration Voice boasts 3,000 members; a fundraising goal of $200,000; and, most notably, a partnership with a high-powered lobbying firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates LLC.

The group's transformation from an insular circle to a politically active movement offers a window into an alternative immigrant campaign being waged as the Senate this week resumes its work on immigration laws.

Most members and all the core organizers of Immigration Voice hail from India, though Chinese membership numbers in the hundreds and is on the rise. Most arrived on an international student visa or a visa known as the H-1B, reserved for highly skilled workers who can stay for up to six years -- unless an employer sponsors their green cards, which grant immigrants permanent residence in the United States and the right to live and work here freely. Over the past decade, the largest numbers of H-1Bs have been awarded to high-technology workers from India and China.

Thus, while the passage of a strict border-security bill introduced by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) mobilized many other immigrants in December, members of this high-tech group had their eye on another: a budget reconciliation bill that, in the Senate version, would have allowed those waiting in line for a green card to proceed even if the quota had been exhausted. The provision was cut in conference committee, stirring many to action and leading to the founding of Immigration Voice.

While hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to get Congress's attention, Immigration Voice took a decidedly different approach. Shortly after the group was established, Kapoor and other volunteers began interviewing lobbyists, relying mostly on Google searches and data from the Center for Public Integrity's Web site.

"If it was not going to be big, it would not be worth the effort," said Kapoor, who works for Florida State University and has traveled to Washington nine times in the past three months. "Most of us have reached that point, having waited for eight or nine years, where individual lives are on hold."

Neither Quinn Gillespie nor Immigration Voice would disclose the amount being paid for the firm's services. Kapoor said it is "less than five figures."

"This is a sympathetic story," said Nick Maduros, a lobbyist for Quinn Gillespie. "For this group, their issues are very technical and are frankly not that controversial, but they have been overshadowed ."

Immigration Voices also enlisted the help of Rick Swartz, who has his own firm and has long been a leading lobbyist for immigration groups. Swartz gathered members of the group at his home one January weekend for a crash course in American politics, teaching them to position themselves as the "new Cubans for the Republicans."


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