‘Many are dying waiting in the line for decades.’ Green card change blocked in Senate

Sunayana Dumala and other immigrants from India expressed their disappointment Thursday when an Illinois senator blocked a bill meant to end decades-long wait times for green cards.

Dumala, a Johnson County resident, became the face of the legislation after the 2017 hate-crime murder of her husband, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, in Olathe. The tragedy put her own immigration status in jeopardy.

“Three years later, I can’t have a peaceful sleep because of the thought of what if I have to leave the country tomorrow,” Dumala said Thursday after Utah Republican Sen. Mike Lee failed in an attempt to pass the bill through unanimous consent.

Dumala was able to stay in the country once she obtained her own temporary employment visa. But under the current system she may never obtain a green card, which would grant permanent residence and put her on a path to full citizenship.

“Many are dying waiting in the line for decades,” Dumala said last month.

The U.S. distributes 140,000 employment-based green cards each year, enabling recipients to become permanent residents and take steps toward citizenship.

But existing law limits each country to 7 percent of the green cards available. The high volume of employment-based immigration from India and China means people from those countries must wait decades. Immigrants from other countries are often able to obtain green cards after only a few years in the U.S.

Lee’s bill would eliminate the per-country cap. The House has already passed similar legislation.

Lee attempted to pass the Senate by unanimous consent Thursday, but was blocked when Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, raised an objection.

Supporters of the legislation say lifting the caps will bring fairness by establishing a first-come-first-serve system. The bill is strongly backed by the Indian American community and the tech industry, which has been reliant on Indian immigrants.

However, critics warn that removing the per-country caps without raising the overall number of employment-based green cards will create a new backlog for other immigrant groups as Indians move to the front of the line.

“This is a gift to one country, which is India, and to one industry, which is IT,” said Amy Maldonado, an immigration attorney based in Michigan.

Lee has tried multiple times to pass the bill through unanimous consent. In each instance, a new senator has emerged with an objection. He argued Thursday that the fact that the bill isn’t comprehensive immigration reform is the reason it should be able to pass the chamber.

Durbin offered his own bill, which would lift the 140,000-person cap on employment-based visas. It would resolve the issue for Indian immigrants, he said, without an adverse effect on those from other countries. Lee blocked Durbin’s bill after the Illinois senator made his own unanimous consent motion.

“I believe in immigration and I believe in the diversity of America. But what will not work, what will not succeed is the notion that we can somehow just favor one group from one country at the expense of every other country,” Durbin said.

Indian-immigrants who filled the Senate gallery were deflated by the latest setback.

“He’s kind of holding it hostage just so he can get his bill passed,” said Saurabh Chandla, a Massachusetts resident who has been on temporary visas since 2005. “It’s super frustrating.”

As they wait for green cards, Indian-born immigrants must remain on temporary employment visas, which limit their ability to seek new jobs, start businesses of their own or move to new cities. If their visas are not renewed, they can face deportation.

Dumala said she would like to start a foundation to honor her late husband, but she’s blocked from committing to that full time because her legal status is tied to her job.

“I can’t quit my job. The next day I’d have to go home,” she said.

Dumala said there are cases of other women who are forced to stay with abusive husbands because their status is tied to their spouse’s employment.

But critics of the bill say there are better ways to address the backlog.

The American Hospital Association has been one of the main groups lobbying against the bill because of the potential impact on foreign-born nurses from the Philippines and other countries.

“Eliminating the per-country cap is a dramatic change in our immigration policy, with negative consequences, including eliminating the future ability of foreign-trained nurses to obtain visas for five to seven years or more,” Thomas Nickels, the executive vice president for the association, wrote in a letter to senators last month.

Lee has amended the bill to reserve 7,200 green cards for rural nurses in an effort to address concerns from the medical community.

For her part, Dumala’s not giving up hope that the legislation can reach the president’s desk before the end of the year.

“I’m sure that for all of those who were in DC and for all of us who were glued to our monitors today it was a disheartening thing to watch, but we’ve been in this struggle for a decade. We are not going to lose our hope,” she said.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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