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Skilled Immigrants Turn to K Street
High-Tech Workers Awaiting Green Cards Hire Lobbyists, Hit the Hill
By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 26, 2006; Page D01
On the December day when Congress killed a budget amendment that might have allowed him to become an American a little sooner, Aman Kapoor started a movement.
He did not march through streets, carry signs, wave a flag from here or there. He did not walk off the job or file out of school. The computer programmer simply went online to a message board tracked by thousands of people in his predicament: highly skilled foreigners waiting years for their green cards.
"I think we can do better and really create the impact with organized effort," he wrote. "To achieve this we need a group of individuals who have shown commitment and motivation in this forum."
The next night, a dozen people living across the United States shed their Internet handles -- Kapoor's was "WaldenPond," a nod to his hero, Henry David Thoreau -- and addressed one another by name on a conference call that lasted an hour. Today, just four months later, the organization they dubbed Immigration Voice boasts 3,000 members; a fundraising goal of $200,000; and, most notably, a partnership with a high-powered lobbying firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates LLC.
The group's transformation from an insular circle to a politically active movement offers a window into an alternative immigrant campaign being waged as the Senate this week resumes its work on immigration laws.
Most members and all the core organizers of Immigration Voice hail from India, though Chinese membership numbers in the hundreds and is on the rise. Most arrived on an international student visa or a visa known as the H-1B, reserved for highly skilled workers who can stay for up to six years -- unless an employer sponsors their green cards, which grant immigrants permanent residence in the United States and the right to live and work here freely. Over the past decade, the largest numbers of H-1Bs have been awarded to high-technology workers from India and China.
Thus, while the passage of a strict border-security bill introduced by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) mobilized many other immigrants in December, members of this high-tech group had their eye on another: a budget reconciliation bill that, in the Senate version, would have allowed those waiting in line for a green card to proceed even if the quota had been exhausted. The provision was cut in conference committee, stirring many to action and leading to the founding of Immigration Voice.
While hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets to get Congress's attention, Immigration Voice took a decidedly different approach. Shortly after the group was established, Kapoor and other volunteers began interviewing lobbyists, relying mostly on Google searches and data from the Center for Public Integrity's Web site.
"If it was not going to be big, it would not be worth the effort," said Kapoor, who works for Florida State University and has traveled to Washington nine times in the past three months. "Most of us have reached that point, having waited for eight or nine years, where individual lives are on hold."
Neither Quinn Gillespie nor Immigration Voice would disclose the amount being paid for the firm's services. Kapoor said it is "less than five figures."
"This is a sympathetic story," said Nick Maduros, a lobbyist for Quinn Gillespie. "For this group, their issues are very technical and are frankly not that controversial, but they have been overshadowed ."
Immigration Voices also enlisted the help of Rick Swartz, who has his own firm and has long been a leading lobbyist for immigration groups. Swartz gathered members of the group at his home one January weekend for a crash course in American politics, teaching them to position themselves as the "new Cubans for the Republicans."
Although their numbers are far smaller -- fewer than 2 million Indians live in the United States, according to the 2000 Census -- the group is among the more affluent immigrant communities. And because their numbers are smaller than those of Hispanics, they are trying to focus on other ways they can exert power -- through their wealth, their positions of influence in the high-tech and business communities, and their alliances with more established advocacy groups such as one for Indian physicians and an Indian political action committee.
While the immigrant marchers' demands have covered a range of issues, including allowing immigrants to gain legal status and eventually citizenship, the members of this association are more narrowly focused: They want Congress to pass measures that would end the years-long wait for a green card. In fact, they warn that efforts to enable millions of illegal immigrants to remain here permanently would result in the same bureaucratic nightmare legal immigrants are now facing.
"If you're going to reform, reform across the board," said Bharati Mandapati, who oversees content for the group, which means she has learned how to word and pitch legislative amendments.
The group has refrained from taking a stand on the fate of the undocumented workers, though it monitors chatter on its Web site to ensure that frustrated high-tech workers don't disparage lower-skilled laborers such as landscapers and restaurant workers. It also has stayed mum on raising the cap on H-1Bs, the visas that made most of their passages possible.
Under a proposal introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the number of employment-based green cards being issued would increase from 140,000 to 290,000. Currently, no one country is supposed to take up more than 7 percent of the allotment, though unused green cards can be redistributed to countries that have already met their quota. That has made possible migrations in excess of 7 percent from nations such as India, China, Mexico and the Philippines. Under the proposal, the per-country cap would be increased to a hard and fast 10 percent. Proponents say this would prevent one country from dominating the category and would retain jobs for native-born Americans.
But Mandapati, a California-based economist, argues that the restriction would hurt the United States because the demand for skills changes. "It just so happens that computer technology and certain technical skills are in great demand here and all over the world. It just so happens that there are two countries that have invested a lot of resources in educating people in these fields . . . India and China."
About a half-million immigrants are caught in the green-card backlog, some as they wait for Labor Department approval or because quotas have been exceeded. In that time, they cannot be promoted or given substantial pay increases because that would mean a change in job description and salary. They turn to Web sites to compare their wait times with others, and their Internet handles, such as "stucklabor" and "waiting_labor," exude their frustration.
During meetings on Capitol Hill, Maduros and at least one Immigration Voice representative lay out the group's platform, weaving in the personal stories of members. Shilpa Ghodgaonkar, a Germantown housewife, has become a staple anecdote -- and a frequent visitor on the Hill.
For four years, she and her husband have been waiting for their green cards. Ghodgaonkar's husband arrived on an H-1B visa, and she followed as his dependent, unauthorized to work here. To pass the time, she learned to cook. Then she volunteered as a career counselor in Montgomery County. Last year, she earned her MBA from George Washington University. In December, around the time Kapoor sent out his e-mail plea for mass mobilization, Ghodgaonkar had run out of options.
"I just couldn't keep quiet anymore," Ghodgaonkar said. "I cannot be depressed anymore."
She keeps a spreadsheet that lays out appointment times and the senators' offices she has visited or still plans to: Specter, Frist, Schumer, Brownback, Bingaman, Feinstein, Feingold. Wednesdays bring a weekly call with Quinn Gillespie. And every few nights, there are conference calls among Immigration Voice's core team.
Now the group plans to closely watch the debate resuming in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Earlier this month, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) proposed amendments with all of the group's provisions. Other lawmakers confirm that they are still meeting with the group to hear their concerns.
Immigration Voice leaders say the past few months have focused and politicized Indian immigrants in a way that was not apparent in the past. "There is a very 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' quality" about the current effort, Mandapati said. "It's been a journey, a loss of naivete and getting to know about American politics."