1 Million Skilled Workers Stuck in 'Immigration Limbo'

Study reveals 1 million highly skilled workers wait in line for green cards.

ByABC News
February 11, 2009, 2:59 AM

Aug. 27, 2007 -- Eight years ago, India-born Sacheen Kamath was hired by a U.S. technology start-up that was so successful it was quickly gobbled up by a California networking giant.

Although Kamath's work as computer engineer has been stellar -- he's led the development of a next-generation networking product -- his life here has begun to fall apart.

With his temporary visa, he can't get a promotion because any change in his job description, or even his salary, would force him to reapply for a new visa. The temporary status makes it difficult to plan ahead and do simple things like look for a new job or even buy a house.

Kamath's wife is unhappy because under his visa she is considered a dependent and cannot work. It's a stressful situation, enough so that he has developed hypertension.

Kamath is caught in "immigration limbo" -- like 1 million other talented legal immigrants waiting for a mere 140,000 permanent residency visas that are parsed out each year to highly skilled workers.

He applied for his so-called green card, which would give him legal resident status, in 2004, but when his company was bought out, he was forced to reapply, throwing him to the back of the line, meaning another four- to five-year wait.

Now Kamath wants to take his expertise and brain power home to India.

A recent study conducted by researchers at Duke, Harvard and New York universities suggests that the frustration of legal, skilled immigrants like Kamath is setting the stage for what could be the first "reverse brain drain" in American history.

Bureaucratic headaches and personal struggles like the ones Kamath has experienced have led as many as 20 percent of legal immigrants to consider abandoning their American dreams, according to the collaborative study, titled "Intellectual Property, the Immigration Backlog and Reverse Brain Drain: America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs." That reverse migration could rob U.S. industry and the economy of some of its most vital brainpower.

"I have begun to hate my work and my life in the U.S." said Kamath. "I think that it is better to be king in a third world country than a helpless immigrant in a superpower, developed one."

If he returns to India's vibrant economy, Kamath would work for his company's research center, and he would likely take along others who work for him.

"My company is already thinking of outsourcing work to India," he said. "But it's not easy to pack up eight years of your life, relocate and restart in a new country, not even your own."

For decades, the backbone of America's competitive economy has been its highly educated legal immigrants. The majority come from India, China, Mexico and the Philippines, attracted to the United States by the world's best universities, most vibrant companies and highest standard of living.

The study revealed that immigrants founded half of the tech and engineering companies started in Silicon Valley between 1995 and 2005. Nationwide, about one-quarter were started by immigrants.

It also discovered that 41 percent of the U.S. government's global patents had foreign nationals listed as inventors.