Temporary visa holders divided over plan to shake up green card system

Congress is weighing a change in how the government allocates employment-based green cards, reviving an issue that has divided the thousands of skilled foreign workers in the region’s technology, higher education, and biomedical industries.

The legislation would remove limits on the share of green cards that can be allotted to workers each year from any one country.

Ending the caps would speed up the green card process for Indian and Chinese nationals, who are by far the largest group of temporary skilled laborers in the United States and who often spend years in limbo awaiting permanent residency status.

“Despite having lived in this country for half my life, I’m still on a temporary visa, and I don’t know that I’m going to be able to continue to live here,” said Sudarshana Sengupta, an Indian biomedical scientist who lives near Boston and has been waiting for a green card since 2010.

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But the legislation would prolong the wait times for skilled workers from other countries, upending life plans they made with the expectation of obtaining a green card within a few years. Many workers from nations affected by President Trump’s travel ban are especially concerned; without a green card, they can’t go home to visit loved ones.

“This rule is very naive because it moves the backlog to the rest of the world, and it just makes the situation worse for everybody,” said Sadra Sadraddini, an Iranian mechanical engineer who came to Boston in 2013 as a doctoral student. He received his degree this year and is now taking steps to apply for a green card.

“If I have to go to another country, the time and money that I’ve spent in the US will be lost, so I’m really stressed,” he said.

Proposals to end the caps have gotten stuck in stalled immigration bills for years. But a prominent Republican lawmaker recently inserted a proposal in a key appropriations measure, raising the chances of a vote later this year. Individuals on either side of the question have taken to social media to argue their cases.

“There’s a lot of pent-up frustration,” said B. Lindsay Lowell, an immigration researcher who teaches at Georgetown University.

The Boston area is one of the top destinations in the United States for people with H-1B visas, which give foreigners with specialized skills temporary permission to live and work here. A recent report by the Pew Research Center found that 38,300 of such visas were approved locally between 2010 and 2016 — behind only New York, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.

Many H-1B recipients arrive with the hope of getting a green card, so they can settle in the country for good. But an immigrant’s nation of origin can have a dramatic effect on those prospects.

Current law says workers and their family members from any one country are entitled to just 7 percent of the 140,000 employment-based green cards issued each year, a category that covers skilled employees, foreign investors, and a handful of other classes of workers.

The limit was established as part of the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which aimed to give prospective immigrants from every country a fair shot at living here.

While the government controls the overall number H-1B visas issued each year, there are no country-by-country limits. And employers hungry for skilled labor have in recent decades recruited heavily from India and China, huge countries with large numbers of highly educated people eager to make their lives here.

Some 600,000 green card petitions for skilled Indian workers and their family members were pending as of this spring, according to federal homeland security data, and nearly 100,000 Chinese petitions were in a similar limbo. No other countries faced backlogs even close to that size.

Immigration officials can redistribute green cards from countries that don’t hit their caps to people from countries facing backlogs. Still, there has been little relief: Petitioners from India can expect to wait a decade or longer for a green card, while workers from other countries might need fewer than two years, according to US State Department data.

“It’s a basic principle of fairness that you stand in the line, and your number comes based on when you arrived,” said Aman Kapoor, cofounder of Immigration Voice, an advocacy group for skilled foreign workers that has been pushing for the change.

Major tech companies have been lobbying to eliminate the national-origin caps, including Microsoft, Amazon, and Salesforce, all of which have significant Boston presences. Weston-based Monster Worldwide has also been pushing the issue in Washington, arguing that the employers who use its job-listing services have identified the shortage of green cards for their temporary workers as a top priority.

Proposals to address the backlog have attracted bipartisan support for years in Congress — the entire Massachusetts House delegation supported one such bill last year — but the issue has been caught up in the congressional stalemate over a broad immigration overhaul.

Now, however, Representative Kevin Yoder, a Republican from Kansas who leads a powerful subcommittee on homeland security spending, has given the idea new life by including it in a crucial homeland security appropriations bill.

The provision faces a uncertain road. President Trump has said he wants that spending bill to include money for his controversial border wall. Congressional leaders, wary of a divisive political fight, have pushed off its consideration until after the November elections.

Nonetheless, observers say Yoder’s interest in quickly lifting the green card caps raises the chances that such a proposal could win approval as part of a compromise or as a separate effort.

The Trump administration, which has been pushing for laws to support a broader immigration crackdown, has not publicly weighed in on the change. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The sudden advancement of the proposed change comes amid a rapidly shifting immigration landscape. Visas have become more difficult to renew, immigration attorneys say, and the administration is considering cutting off the ability of H-1B workers’ spouses to hold jobs here while they await green cards.

On social media, the debate has gotten nasty at times — especially on Twitter, where supporters and opponents have questioned each other’s motives and accused one another of seeking special treatment for people from their countries.

Some employers say they support measures that would ease the backlog because the unreliable supply of green cards makes it difficult to retain talented people who become crucial to the operation.

“These people want to come in and take a bet on you and work here and live here, and if there’s any uncertainty, it’s a challenge,” said Marc French, a senior vice president at the Lexington e-mail security company Mimecast. “Because, all of a sudden, you start having those hard conversations. ‘Do I move back? Do I move to Canada?’ ”

Srikanth Paladugu, whose green card has been pending since 2012, said many Indians feel they are in a situation comparable to indentured servitude. Their employers have sponsored their visas and their green card applications, and moving jobs would mean starting the process again.

“The employer and the employee know that there is no other option than to stay with the company,” Paladugu said.

He is happy at his computer engineering job at a major tech firm, but Paladugu said that unlike workers who are permanent residents, he would never even be able to consider moving.

“I might get a better career opportunity,” he said, “but I never tried, because I don’t want to go through these hazards.”

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Srikanth Paladugu has been waiting years for a green card to come through. His application was approved several years ago but because of an immigration backlog for Indian nationals he has been unable to get permanent residency.

Andy Rosen can be reached at

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