By Xiyun Yang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
The U.S. government announced yesterday that it will accept applications for employer-sponsored green cards that it rejected earlier this month, after facing mounting public pressure, possible litigation and a cascade of flowers.
The flowers came mostly from Indian immigrants who hold H-1B visas for highly educated and skilled workers, who were protesting the government's refusal to accept the applications after it had invited them. Last week, they sent flowers -- more than 200 bouquets to the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services -- to emulate Mohandas K. Gandhi, who advocated peaceful methods to achieve India's independence from Britain.
After an announcement June 12 that applications would be accepted for what would be the final step in a long process to obtain permanent residence in the United States, thousands of legal immigrants who had waited for years to apply for green cards rushed to get their paperwork together. They canceled long-planned family trips, searched for documents and hired lawyers.
Then, on July 2, the agency announced that it would reject all the applications because the green-card quota for the year had been filled by USCIS, leaving thousands of newly optimistic workers with stacks of bills and dashed hopes.
The mixed bureaucratic signals ignited a public outcry against the agencies. Immigration lawyers began filing lawsuits. Activists demonstrated in San Jose, and corporations accused the government of eroding U.S. competitiveness.
"The public reaction to the July 2 announcement made it clear that the federal government's management of this process needs further review," Emilio T. Gonzalez, the director of USCIS, said in a written statement.
Yesterday's decision will allow those who qualified to file their applications by August 17.
"The government has done the right thing by these people," said Crystal Williams, deputy director for programs at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
The announcement does not guarantee that applications will be approved, nor does it resolve the logjam in the government's green-card application process. The annual quota of 140,000 green cards is far lower than the demand, and after the August deadline, no more applications will be accepted for the rest of the year.
After USCIS receives the applications, "they will do what they've always done: register them in and put them on the shelf," Williams said.
Activists and corporations both say that this is just the beginning of what they hope to be immigration reform for skilled, educated workers.
"This is not the long-term solution we are striving for," said Vikas Chowdhry, a member of Immigration Voice, a Web site devoted to issues faced by skilled immigrants.
Microsoft and Google, which depend on highly educated foreigners, have lobbied Congress to allow more skilled workers into the country and to streamline the process for them to stay.
"Immigration reform is our top legislative priority," said Jack Krumholtz, Microsoft's chief lobbyist. "We hope the government is ready to take the next step." More than 4,000 Microsoft employees were waiting to apply for green cards, he said.
While debate over immigration has long focused on the illegal immigrant population, legal immigrants are embroiled in logistics.
The annual green-card quotas are often not met because they get caught up in a bureaucratic morass, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on citizenship, refugees, immigration and border security. "DHS has not enforced the law. This is very different from comprehensive immigration reform," she said.
But for those who had waited with bated breath since sending their bouquets of frustration two weeks ago, one small step is better than none at all.
"I'm so glad that we made the effort," said Sumita Arora, 36, of Chester Springs, Pa. "I think it's great news. It restores our faith back in the judicial system."