1 Million Skilled Workers Stuck in 'Immigration Limbo'

These are not the 12 million illegal immigrants who have captivated national attention and stirred congressional debate. Rather, these are doctors, engineers and technology superstars who have played by the rules and helped fuel the booming American economy.

"We are obsessed with the undocumented aliens who are unskilled, but there is a major crisis with our skilled labor," said Robert Litan, vice president of research at the Kauffman Foundation, which released the study Aug. 22.

"It would be a national tragedy if they went back," Litan told ABCNEWS.com. "We have our eyes focused on the wrong ball."

'A National Tragedy'

The study was based on data from the U.S. departments of Homeland Security, Labor and State.

According to the study, one in five new legal immigrants and about one in three business owners or investors either plan to leave the U.S. or are uncertain about staying.

Immigrants like Leigh Plimmer, an Atlanta CPA from South Africa, feel unwelcome, and Plimmer argued that the national debate on illegal workers has painted a false picture of all immigrants as "illegal, lazy, criminal, unbeneficial and parasitic."

Since the 1960s, U.S. immigration policy has been less Eurocentric, offering visas equally to all countries. Greater emphasis is placed on family ties, rather than on education and skills.

Each year, the United States gives out a total of 900,000 green cards -- the first step toward citizenship. The vast majority go to relatives of new immigrants or to refugees or asylum seekers. Just 140,000 are allotted for skilled immigrants.

The problem, said Litan, was the cap Congress put on skilled immigration -- each country can only account for 7 percent of the total 140,000 available green cards that go to skilled immigrants.

This means that a small country like Iceland is allowed the same number of immigrants -- about 9,800 a year -- as industrial giants like India and China, highly populous countries whose growing economies are now luring their emigrants back.

Some skilled immigrants could wait up to 10 years for their green cards, forcing them to make hard professional and personal choices.

Nigerian Kola Akinwande, a manager at a major Arizona company, is so discouraged that he has applied for immigration to Canada. He came to the United States in 2001, but a series of company mergers and acquisitions threw his plans into turmoil.

He cannot get a raise or switch jobs without sacrificing his green card application. His wife, with a master's in child psychology, cannot work. His two college-age sons do not qualify for in-state tuition, and a third son is headed for college next year.

"I have ideas of starting a venture that would employ at least 10 American workers, but I can't," he told ABCNEWS.com. "We are stuck in limbo. I cannot go home now without wasting six years of my life."

"But I prefer to stay here because we have put down roots," he said.

Some Prefer to Stay

Companies started by immigrants employed 450,000 workers and generated $52 billion in revenue in 2006, according to earlier studies. Indian immigrants founded more companies than the next four countries combined -- the United Kingdom, China, Taiwan and Japan.

The largest foreign-born patent application group was from China, according to an analysis of the World Intellectual Property Organization. Indian nationals were second, followed by Canadians and the British.

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