SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The placards made clear this was not your typical immigrant rights march: "We played by the rules, now it's your turn," read one. "Legal immigrants keep America competitive," read another.
High-tech workers here on federal permits are speaking out — many for the first time — over rules that leave them for years in personal and professional limbo.
After Congress failed to reform immigration laws for the second year in a row, hundreds of the largely India- and China-born workers protested this summer in Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. They were frustrated that the divisive debate over illegal immigration had overwhelmed efforts at comprehensive immigration reform.
"I've never held a banner before, but I don't know what else to do," said Gopal Chauhan, a high-tech employee who has been waiting seven years for a green card. "We usually have better things to do, like invent the next iPod."
Legal immigrants who feel squeezed by limits on the number of green cards issued each year are trying to separate their complaints from the protests by illegal immigrants. And high-tech companies that say they can't fill jobs because of a cap on skilled-worker visas have stepped up their long-standing plea for the cap to be raised.
"It gets too frustrating sometimes," said Sandeep Bhatia, a software engineer from Mumbai who first applied for a green card in 2001.
Since then, Bhatia has completed an MBA, and was joined in the United States by his wife Preeti, who also has an MBA. But he cannot be promoted to a job that would use his new skills, and Preeti can't get a job, until the government finishes processing his green card.
"The Indian and Chinese economies are being fed right now with people who get tired of waiting and go home," Bhatia said.
The green card application system is akin to "indentured servitude," said Kim Berry, president of the Programmers' Guild, a group that opposes current work visa laws. "It takes years for the green card sponsorship to happen, and they can't leave, can't ask for a raise unless they want to lose their place in line."
Applications for work-related green cards — limited to 140,000 each year, about 9,800 per sending country — are backlogged so deep that many immigrants must plod along for years, uncertain about their future in the United States and unable to change jobs while they wait for permanent residence.
And immigration officials resorted to a lottery for H1-B work visas this summer when businesses filed — on just the first day the government was accepting applications — double the number that could be considered the whole year. Three years ago, it took 10 months for businesses to fill the annual quota.
American-born tech workers who criticize the visa system argue the annual influx of 65,000 foreign workers like Bhatia takes jobs from Americans and puts a damper on all salaries.
But the industry is putting its muscle behind its foreign workers.
"They're the smartest in their field, recognized as essential to the companies' growth, yet this immigration system subjects them to second-class status," said Robert Hoffman, a vice president with business software company Oracle Corp. and co-chairman of Compete America, a coalition pushing to increase the number of work visas available. Besides Oracle, its members include such heavyweights as Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp.
This is why even as lawmakers veered away from the issue, the tech industry tried to keep it alive. Workers staged marches. An online community called Immigration Voice recruited immigrants to reach out to legislators by fax, phone and e-mail. Its members met with some 140 members of Congress or their staffs in September alone, and they continue to hold meetings to attract members across the country.
They are asking Congress to consider limited reform targeting only legal immigrants — more H1-B visas, more green cards — as a more palatable alternative to a bigger bill that also addresses illegal immigration.
Some legislators agree that paring down the issue might increase the chances of success.
"There is a higher degree of likelihood that we can make improvements on legal immigration," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat who represents Silicon Valley. "But everything in immigration is controversial."
What's clear is that many who are here legally say they're suffering under the current system — its delays, its limits, the constraints it puts on their lives. More than 1 million foreign nationals were in line for permanent residency in 2006. More than 500,000 came into the U.S. on H1-Bs, and the rest through family connections.
Microsoft Corp. was the third-largest sponsor of H1-B visas in the last federal fiscal year. But it still didn't get all the foreign workers it wanted into the country. The company's government affairs director said this was one motivation for Microsoft to open a new software development center in Canada.
"We currently do 85% of our development work in the U.S., and we'd like to continue doing that," said Jack Krumholtz. "But if we can't hire the developers we need ... we're going to have to look to other options to get the work done."
About 8% of Mountain View-based Google Inc.'s employees currently work under H1-B visas. This year, the company posted 70 new foreign hires overseas when they couldn't get visas. They'll try again next year.
Smaller companies, which may need only one foreign worker, argue they suffer most under the visa cap because they don't have the flexibility of the giants in the field.
Hypres Inc., a company that develops superconducting integrated circuits in Elmsford, N.Y., operates with 35 highly specialized researchers. An extensive job search recently identified one match — in Sweden.
The company submitted the H1-B request on the first day possible, but it was among the 150,000 requests, and it wasn't picked in the lottery.
"For us, it was a big hit," said Oleg Mukhanov, Hypres' vice president for technology, saying they'd already taken on government contracts counting on the prospective employee's expertise. "We need to be able to compete for such people on a global stage. Or else we just can't compete."