US Immigration Policy Reform – ISN

The Journey of ‘The American Competitiveness Act in the twenty first century

Since the early 90, the United States wanted to stay ahead in the technology race by research, innovation, and production of goods and services related to the new computing industry. All this required un-ending pools of talent that was not locally available. Thus the H-1B visa program was launched in 1990, when President George H.W. Bush signed the “Immigration Act of 1990“. It was intended to help American firms deal with labor shortages in rapidly growing fields that demand specialized skills, such as research, engineering and computer programming. Over the years the numbers of these visas kept increasing to cope up with the needs of the industry. However as the number of new visas were increased the number of green card quotas available to those wishing to apply for permanent residence did not increase within the 10-year period thereby adding to the queue of hopeful H1-B individuals wishing for permanent residence. Further delays in processing times only added to the peril of the immigrant workers trying to build a life in the US. This was further aggravated by the need for H1-B visa holders to leave the US for a period of one calendar year after completing six years in the US before they could apply for a new H1-B and come back in for a further 6 years. Then the issues of job portability etc. made it even worst so much so that it started a reverse brain drain of skilled workers back to their home country while new H1-B visas were being granted to fresh individuals coming to the US to take their jobs. By 1998 things got to a head where such affected persons got together on immigration portals and discussed their options to build their life. These discussions and deliberation pointed to only one thing eventually – the need to help reform the H1-B Immigration policies within the Immigration and Nationality Act. There was much discussion in the media and also testimonies from congressional representatives themselves attesting the plight.

The Immigrants Support Network (ISN) was formed in 1998 as a 501 (c)(3) organization to help address these immigration related concerns of the H1-B hi-tech workers that were causing havoc to their everyday lives. ISN during its two year work via its volunteer staff contacted thousands of affected H1-B visa holders, and listened closely to their immigration related concerns towards permanent residence and otherwise. As a result, ISN took a position to represent all issues (brief) within Immigration and Nationality Act and request members of the 106th US Congress for suitable relief via some of the immigration bills already under review.

All this by proposing changes via ISN’s Issue Paper to all 535 legislators, relevant institutional staff, and the White house, so that they would create an adjustment of status program for H1-B workers. There were many immigration related bills pending passage in Congress, and there was a desire to amalgamate them all for the benefit of ISN’s constituents. Some programs suggested H1-B holders apply for green cards, independent of their employers and independent of the country quotas so long as these applicants could prove that they have worked as H1-B holders for a specific period of time. Spouses and children of these H1-B workers would also be included in such a program. With ISN’s membership exceeding 15,000 H1-B visa holders, they all came together and stepped forward to express concerns to legislators.

ISN’s alternatives to address immediate concerns would include

  1. Extension of H1-B visas beyond the current six-year limit for professionals who have filed applications for permanent residence,
  2. Provide temporary ‘green cards’ that include all privilege’s of permanent residence to those who have received labor certification and have applied for the green card,
  3. Removal of the country quota-limit on employment based visas/GCs,
  4. Allow unused visas in the employment based category to be carried over to the following year.

The situation was getting quite stark – As per a 1999 report by Georgetown University’s Institute for the study of International Migration – the pre-2000 immigration laws would allow less than 25% of H1-B workers to get a green card in six years before their visa term expires. After which they were required to leave the US for one calendar year!! H1-B workers from India were being hit the hardest as there were over 200,000 visa holders and the country quota limits allowed only 9,800 green cards to be given in any calendar year. This would ensure that the backlog of people waiting to get green cards kept growing exponentially! This and other critical needs had to be addressed. To share the ground realities of affected individuals and families, advocacy and lobbying were the only recourses for any suitable change.

As a member of ISN’s Board , VP and head of Congressional Communications, it was my job to engage with members of the US Congress, White House, and several other government officials to work towards advancing the concerns of our members suitably to bring about the required changes. We undertook a unique approach along with our lobbyist advisor – instead of hiring professional staff who would be personally far removed from the reality of our members, we had our affected constituents themselves directly visit congressional offices and represent key issues via ISN’s published manifesto to their district offices and central offices in Washington DC via suitable lobby campaigns. This simple approach made a huge difference in sensitization of congressional staff and their response to the whole issue. Given the personal connect they were able to see the plight of affected individuals first hand and get genuine answers to their concerns and questions. Thus witnessing the impact to human life directly under prevailing immigration law. This approach made the most significant difference in increasing their resolve to help affected individuals and families. ISN received excellent bi-partisan support with the Late Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy (D-MA) and Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI) being the front runners alongside many others on the Senate’s immigration committee, and caucus.

The above strategy and significant media outreach with the press helped educate a broad section of society and businesses about issues with H1-B high tech visas. Some of the media articles are cited below

  1. 28th March 2000 : ForbesINS Incompetence Incenses Tech Community
  2. 15th May 2000 : WiredForeign worker debate heats up
  3. 16th May 2000 : The New York Times Coalition urges easing of IM
  4. 25th May 2000 : The New York Times Rethinking the economics of immigration
  5. 28th May 2000 : The New York TimesThe VC in my bedroom
  6. 2nd June 2000 : San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate)H1-B workers lobby for immigration
  7. 5th June 2000 : Computer World Backlogs keep visas on shelf
  8. 17th June 2000 : Washington PostImmigration gone awry
  9. Scan of all ISN Press Articles
  10. My Letter to President William J. Clinton

It would be pertinent to add that ISN’s involvement with pro-immigration leadership by then Republican Vice Presidential candidate Jack Kemp and Secretary Henry Cisneros to rally all the pro-immigration forums across the US. This led to the formation and subsequent introduction of Bill S.2045 in the US senate, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch and co-sponsored by Senators Spencer Abraham, Phil Gramm, Bob Graham, Joseph I. Lieberman, Dianne Feinstein, Trent Lott, Don Nickles, Connie Mack III, Arlen Specter, Mike DeWine, Mitch McConnell, Slade Gorton, Chuck Hagel, Robert F. Bennett, Rod Grams, John Ashcroft, Sam Brownback, Gordon H. Smith, and John Warner. This bill provided a consolidation of all other bills pending with the 106th Congress.

Ultimately given the sensitization, awareness, and advocacy campaigns by ISN over 1999-2000, Bill S.2045 passed by majority vote on the floor of the 106th Congress. Most issues were addressed and the historic ‘The American Competitiveness Act in the twenty first century‘ or AC21 came in to effect. President William J. Clinton signed it in to law (Public Law 106-313). ISN achieved a landmark win for the high-tech H1-B workers first time in US history!!

To quote from the times – ‘In what might have been his last opportunity to pass important immigration legislation, President Clinton signed S. 2045 and H.R. 5362 into law on Tuesday, October 17, 2000. The two bills raise the H-1B cap to 195,000 among other improvements, and raise the INS filing fee by $500.00. While most of the new provisions are effective immediately, the fee increase will not take effect until December 17, 2000. The new law increases the number of H-1B visas available to 195,000 for the years 2001, 2002 and 2003. To remedy the problem of the INS’ “overcount” from the last two years, the law automatically raises the FY 1999 and 2000 caps to accommodate any visa numbers over the old limit attributable to Petitions filed during those fiscal years. Therefore, as of October 1, 2000; the start of FY 2001, there are 195,000 H-1B visas available!

The new law exempts certain workers from the cap altogether. Persons to be employed on H-1B status for higher educational institutions, affiliated non-profit entities and individuals employed by Governmental and nonprofit research organizations are not counted against the cap. The INS is also not allowed under the law to count against the cap any person who has been in H-1B status within the previous six years.

The new law makes H-1B status “portable,” allowing for H-1B workers to transfer employers and begin working upon the filing of the new petition, without waiting several weeks for approval, as was previously the case. This provision, however, is effective only for petitions filed on or after October 17, 2000. Additionally, this provision assists beneficiaries of labor certification applications and I-140 Petitions for Immigrant Worker whose applications for adjustment of status are pending in accepting new employment without penalty. If the I-485, adjustment of status application, has been pending more than 180 days, the worker may change jobs without losing the validity of the underlying I-140 or labor certification.

Although the H-1B law may be the last opportunity President Clinton had in office to be involved with landmark immigration legislation, his statements on the bills were very hopeful for the upcoming year. President Clinton reaffirmed his commitment to passing legislation that would reinstate INA Section 245(i), which allows for the adjustment of status of certain persons currently our of status upon the payment of a fine. President Clinton also endorsed the proposal made earlier that year by Vice President Al Gore to amend the “registry date” to allow persons in the United States since prior to 1986 to file for permanent resident status in the United States. Touted as a “new amnesty,” the registry amendment, along with the reinstatement of 245(i), would restore hope to hundreds of thousands of Immigrants left without legal means to become permanent residents of the United States after the 1996 “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act” (“IIRAIRA”)‘.

At the time of passage AC21 directly helped an about half a million immigrants, and continues to help millions more thereafter.

The United States Capitol building with the dome lit up at night.
President William J. Clinton.
View, from the balcony, of congressmen and congresswomen on the house floor as the Congress is called into session on its opening day, Washington DC. (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)