Tuesday, July 03, 2007

South Asian ("Desi") Immigrants and Immigration Reform

I have been meaning to write something on the topic of immigration reform and that whole hullabaloo. But as often happens while we work together as members the Friends of South Asia, Ramkumar Sridharan, a friend and fellow member steps up and says things so well that I then don't need to. Here's what he's sent around and all I can add is, as we say here in the US "What he said!::
Hi all,

You must be following the immigration reform debate, and the collapse of the immigration reform bill (S.1639) on the Senate floor last week. The primary reason the bill was voted down was because several senators thought it provided "amnesty". However, numerous immigrant advocacy groups also opposed the bill because of the devastating impact it would have had on immigrant communities.

Given the options on the table at the present moment, the death of the bill might have been the best possible outcome. But it is awkward and unfortunate that the bill was voted down for all the wrong reasons. Clearly the bill was at odds with the demands of the immigrant rights movement; and the failure of the bill only shows the strength of the ultra-right.

I wrote the following Op-Ed (published in the print edition of this week's India-West, dated Jun 29) in conjunction with SAALT before the bill was voted out. I wrote it in response to a general tendency amongst my some of friends and peers (H1-B workers in the tech industry) to view undocumented immigrants as their adversaries; and that policies that attempted to (or appeared to) provide even a modicum of relief to mitigate decades of injustice to undocumented folk (sloppily at that, like the current bill) were "unfair" to H1-B and other "legal" folk.

Ramkumar

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South Asian Community Urged to Stand Up for Immigration Reform It is time to realize that immigrants of all status are our true allies—and that it is in our interest to fight for fair immigration laws for everyone.
By RAMKUMAR SRIDHARAN. India-West, June 29, 2007 (Page A8)

Immigration reform is a hot topic these days in my circle of friends and peers in the South Asian community– many of whom, like me, are first-generation Indian immigrants on H-1B visas. As the debate in the Senate proceeds again, it is refreshing to note that South Asian immigrants are becoming more engaged in understanding the impact of the proposed legislation (S. 1639) on our community. But while we try to understand how the bill affects immigrants, it is also important to look at the legislation–and immigration reform policy—as a whole to see if it is really fair to everyone across the board.

The proposed immigration bill in the Senate is controversial for many reasons. It contains provisions that would affect families and workers negatively, for example. It also creates a merit-based point system for obtaining green cards. The Senate bill is problematic for a range of immigrants, including people in situations like mine. I am in my seventh year as an H-1B worker, and personally empathize with the call to reform the immigration system. My employers filed an application for a green card on my behalf in 2003. My application languished in the system for four years before the first stage of the process—the labor certification–got approved a few months ago. Ahead of me is a wait of approximately 3 years, perhaps more, given the nature of today's immigration process.

Clearly, immigration reform legislation could improve or worsen the lives of H-1B workers. The Senate bill under consideration right now does not pave a rosy path for H-1B visa-holders. For instance, it offers less flexibility and control for employers over the process, and reduces the overall numbers of employment-
based visas from 140,000 to 90,000, exacerbating the current visa backlog.

As we analyze the impact of the Senate bill, it is also important to keep in mind that green card holders, undocumented immigrants, and workers of South Asian descent all have a stake in immigration reform. We are intricately linked and share common aspirations as immigrants to this country. We also are products of immigration policies that are generally not made with our interests in mind.

The argument thrown around in some South Asian circles is that any immigration reform legislation should benefit skilled workers first and foremost. Some say that immigration reform should not benefit undocumented immigrants, who have "violated the law" and not "played by the same rules" as legal immigrants. Let's examine some of these arguments more closely.

First, the definition of who is "legal" and who is "illegal" has historically been a constantly changing one based on economic needs. We have to realize that a vast majority of undocumented immigrants had no legal means to come work in the U.S. in their job categories, while H-1B workers and other immigrants had that option. If there were legal paths for undocumented immigrants, would they have had a need to break the law?

In the context of the Senate bill under consideration right now, it is clear that undocumented immigrants are actually disadvantaged due to a merit-based point system that assigns a range of criteria to determine who obtains green cards. The merit-based point system would in effect establish an explicit class-based discrimination system by ostensibly preferring"skilled" over "unskilled" workers. The criteria used to determine who gets green cards include education, employment and English-language ability.

Under the point system, working class South Asians such as cab drivers or domestic workers will obtain fewer points than individuals with educational degrees or work experience. Some may argue that this is fair from an economic standpoint–they say that the U.S. economy, to compete and remain a leader in the world, needs more skilled workers than unskilled ones. But is that argument fair or humane?

The bottom line? The Senate bill is antifamily and antiworker. If the bill is passed in its current form, it will have far-reaching negative consequences for all immigrants including South Asians. We, the H1-B workers, were conspicuously absent last year when the immigrant rights movement needed us. Now, as we become more engaged in the debate and the possibility of a new immigration law looms ahead of us, it is time to realize that immigrants of all status are our true allies—and that it is in our interest to fight for fair immigration laws for everyone.

(The author is an H-1B visa holder living in Santa Cruz, Calif. He is a member of the San Francisco-based Friends of SouthAsia and Washington, D.C.-based South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow.)
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