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A Gift From Gandhi
Frustrated Green Card Applicants From India Use Methods Of Master

By Xiyun Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Shyam Bindingnavale had spent years of anguish in pursuit of permanent residency, so when the government offered him an opportunity to apply for it and then abruptly snatched it away, he was furious and deeply disappointed.

Bindingnavale, 36, a Gaithersburg resident and financial analyst working here on an H1B visa for skilled technical workers, struck back the most effective way he could imagine: He sent flowers to Emilio Gonzalez, the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. So did about 200 other green card applicants, most of them professionals, natives of India and working legally in this country.

They did it because that's what Gandhi would have done.

Yesterday, their bouquets of purple roses, pink lilies and yellow daisies, which cost about $40 each and which were sent from all over the country, piled up on the immigration office's loading dock at 20 Massachusetts Ave. NW, addressed to Gonzalez and stacked in columns taller than people.

The agency forwarded them to soldiers recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"We know the reason behind it and understand the symbolism. We donated them in the same spirit in which they were provided to us," said an agency official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lawsuit over the matter filed by an advocacy group.

The idea for the protest began with the Indian immigration community on the online forum Immigration Voice, a site devoted to issues facing skilled, legal workers seeking permanent residence in the United States. Their method was inspired by Mohandas K. Gandhi, who spent years campaigning nonviolently for India's independence from Britain.

Green card applicants were given hope on June 12, when the State Department posted a bulletin offering H1B visa holders who had been stuck in a bureaucratic logjam an opportunity to take that last step needed to apply for permanent residency.

Thousands of engineers, doctors and other educated foreigners began a mad scramble to file their applications before the July 2 deadline.

Vacations were canceled, and lawyers were called in. Elderly parents in far-flung corners of the world stood in line for hours to get copies of birth certificates and immunization records.

Then, on the day of the deadline, the State Department retracted the bulletin. The USCIS, which processes the applications, said it had already met its 140,000-person annual quota for employee-sponsored applicants.

Those who tried to apply were told they had to wait. Some new applications may be considered again starting Oct. 1, but others may have to wait for years. The wait has become even longer after a surge in green card applications, amplified by a provision in 2001 that allowed undocumented immigrants or immigrants who had overstayed their visas to apply for green cards. The problem was exacerbated by the increased FBI security checks required after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

"Only someone with the saddest mind can do this," said Ashish Mundada, 31, an information technology consultant who works in New York City. Mundada had persuaded his wife to cancel a trip back to India for a sister's wedding to take advantage of what seemed like a brief window of opportunity. Mundada, like many other protesters, said he did not want any favors, just that his application be fairly considered.

The flowers were inspired by a popular Bollywood film, "Lage Raho Munnabhai," in which the main character turns to the ways of Gandhi to solve his problems. The movie has stirred Indians at home and abroad to try to emulate Gandhi, who died in 1948, a year after India achieved independence.

"The only way to get the other party to acknowledge your grief is to do something nonviolent, to show some compassion," said Bindingnavale, who works for MedImmune.

But in America, lawsuits and hearings also hold sway.

Crystal Williams, deputy director for programs at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, suspects that there may still be open slots in the annual green card quota.

"They lied. That's the simple part of it. They lied to keep from having to take these applications," Williams said. The association's sister organization is filing a lawsuit to force the government to accept the filed applications.

"The system is deeply broken," Williams said.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, (D-Calif.), the chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Citizenship, Refugees, Immigration, and Border Security, says she plans to hold a hearing on the issue and is pressing USCIS to accept the recently filed applications.

"They have really messed this up," she said. "The Department of Homeland Security is not known for overarching efficiency, but this is a new low."

Businesses are also unhappy. Many depend on the highly educated foreigners. Google and Microsoft have lobbied Congress on behalf of just such skilled workers.

Elizabeth Stern is a corporate attorney with Baker & McKenzie, a firm that counts many financial service and IT companies among its clients. She said she has heard from corporate clients who are fed up with U.S. policies.

" 'This is just not worth it,' they say. 'I'll just move to England,' " Stern said.

Dilip Tekkedil, 32, a software engineer from North Andover, Mass., is one of the frustrated applicants who came up with the flower idea.

"It was more peaceful," he said. "We don't trouble anyone else. A rally or something, you have to call law enforcement. It's too much trouble for other people."

They do not hold hard feelings against Gonzalez. "I'd like to thank him for the job that he does. I know it's a thankless job," Tekkedil said. "I just hope that he could understand our plight as well."

Their uncertain status makes them fearful of notice. Anand Sharma, 35, a chip design engineer from Longmont, Colo., said she drives well under the speed limit on highways. "We are so scared. We just want to stay here."

But they are weary of how their lives have been frozen in time. They must retain the same job title and income they had when they began the application process, which can last for eight years.

Any reprieve won't come fast enough for Vishal Nanda, 31, an IT consultant who had moved to the United States in 1999. Employed at a subsidiary of Time Warner, he had waited five years for a chance to stay permanently, then was forced to begin his green card process over again because of a technicality, he said.

"There is too much uncertainty," he said. "I don't stand a chance in my lifetime to get a green card."

He is moving back to India next week to join his wife, a dental surgeon.

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