Immigrants say about-face on visas costs them millions

SEATTLE: A sudden about-face by the State Department has left tens of thousands of highly skilled immigrants unable to apply to become legal permanent residents as they had expected to on Thursday, even though many have already paid expensive legal and medical fees to get their applications ready, according to a new lawsuit.

The affected immigrants are mostly from India and China, and many have advanced degrees and work at top tech companies or in medical firms.

They say they've spent thousands of dollars apiece — lawyers estimate that the total is in the tens of millions — and that the government has also jerked them around emotionally, forcing them to cancel trips, miss weddings and funerals, and take time off work, all for nothing.

The State Department issued a bulletin Sep 9 detailing which categories of people in the US could file their final green card paperwork on Thursday. The move came in response to an executive order last year from President Barack Obama seeking to improve and simplify the nation's immigration system.

The bulletin thrilled many of the workers who are here on petitions for employment visas, as it was expected to help clear up a years long backlog of applications by immigrants from China and India. Many immediately started preparing to file by getting their paperwork in order, paying lawyers and obtaining required medical exams and vaccinations.

But on Sep 25, the government revised that notice without explanation, severely curtailing who could apply by issuing new and earlier cut-off dates for consideration based on when an application for a green card was filed. The State Department issued no word as to when those left out might be allowed to file.

Shashi Singh Rai, 32, of Gurnee, Illinois, said her husband, a systems engineer at a pharmaceutical company, has had to put off obtaining a master's degree in business administration for the past five years and has had to turn down promotions as he waits for his green card, because his visa petition is job-specific, she said.

When the State Department issued its initial bulletin, she said, they excitedly called their parents in India. The couple spent $600 obtaining their birth certificates, Rai said, but her disappointment wasn't about the money.

"All our dreams are on hold for this. We have waited patiently," she said. "We have been just hanging by a thread, and that thread has been cut."

Swaroop Venumbaka, 33, a software engineer in Tysons Corner, Virginia, said he took three days off work to prepare his application and had more than $2,600 in legal and medical bills.

He said he hasn't returned to Hyderabad, India, in the past three years because of the complications of traveling without a green card.

When the initial bulletin came down, his immediate thought was about his 6-month-old son. "I was excited to take him back to my parents and extended family," he said.

Now, he expects his wife to take the boy without him later this year.

The federal agency declined to comment Wednesday, saying it does not discuss litigation. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is also named as a defendant, also declined.

Some immigrants said they might be able to get money back from their lawyers, but the medical exams are only valid for a year.

"This case is about what happens when thousands of law-abiding, highly skilled immigrants spend millions of dollars preparing to apply for green cards in reasonable reliance on an agency's binding policy statement, only to find out at the last minute that a hapless federal bureaucracy has abruptly, inexplicably, and arbitrarily reneged on its promise," said the lawsuit, filed Monday in US District Court in Seattle.

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, was filed on behalf of 14 individuals and one organisation, the International Medical Graduate Taskforce, which comprises physicians dedicated to placing doctors in rural American communities.

Their lawyers — R. Andrew Free, of Nashville, Tennessee; Gregory Siskind, of Memphis, Tennessee; and Robert Pauw of Seattle — estimate 20,000 to 30,000 immigrants were affected by the decision.

Among the plaintiffs are Quan Yuan, a Chinese-born math professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, and Qi Wang, a Chinese citizen who lives in Superior, Colorado, and works as a research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the government's main lab for primary laboratory for renewable energy research.

The lawyers on Wednesday afternoon requested an emergency order to keep the revised bulletin from taking effect.

Two California Democrats, US Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda, issued a statement slamming the State Department and asking that it fix the problem. Both represent the Silicon Valley area of California, a tech hotspot.

"This revision seriously undermines the stability and predictability of our immigration system," they said. "In a time when this country has to compete harder than ever with the rest of the world for high-skilled workers, a confounding and sudden change such as this is unacceptable."