June 27, 2006

For Dr. Sengupta Long-Term Visa Is a Long Way Off

Rules Limit Entry, Prospects
Of Foreign-Born Scientists
Despite Demand for Them
Latest in Weather Satellites
June 27, 2006; Page A1

FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Manajit Sengupta studies clouds -- how they can be used to forecast hurricanes, how they may relate to global warming, how to predict their formation over a battlefield.

In the post-Katrina world, Dr. Sengupta's expertise would seem to make the 39-year-old Indian national a highly prized immigrant. Colorado State University, which helps fund the Fort Collins institute where Dr. Sengupta works on a temporary visa, thinks so highly of him that it is sponsoring him for a type of permanent visa that is available only to "outstanding researchers."

Even so, Dr. Sengupta can expect a years-long wait for a visa that would allow him to stay and expand his research. With the economy humming, so is the demand for visas for skilled workers such as scientists and engineers. But Congress caps the number of visas available to them.

Meanwhile, terrorist concerns and antiquated government procedures mean there are enormous paperwork backlogs for would-be immigrants. The Labor Department, which clears one of three forms that most skilled immigrants must file to become permanent residents, has a backlog of 235,000 cases. The Citizenship and Immigration Service, which clears the second form, is 180,000 cases behind. And after those two agencies have acted, the State Department, which issues the visas, predicts waits of a further one to five years for even the most highly trained Indian- and Chinese-born immigrants.

That leaves people like Dr. Sengupta in long-term legal limbo. After 10 years in the U.S. on temporary and student visas, he feels at home here. He's bought a house and is raising a U.S.-born daughter. But his immigration status means he can't change jobs, apply for certain government grants or adopt a child, as he and his wife would like to do. "I have this feeling: Am I wanted here or am I trying to push myself on this country?" he says.

The immigration debate swirling through Congress this summer is mostly about low-skilled illegal immigrants. Largely ignored are the highly skilled legal immigrants who help keep the U.S. a technology leader, even as U.S. students struggle with math and science.

While U.S. industry is eager to have them, the government caps the number of employment visas far below market demand. As other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, loosen their rules on immigration to attract these same highly skilled workers, the U.S.'s long-term competitiveness could be hampered.

Next Big Thing

"Economists worry about another place owning the very next big thing" -- the next groundbreaking technology, says Stanford University economist Dan Siciliano. "If the heart and mind of the next great thing emerges somewhere else because the talent is there, then we will be hurt."

The foreign-born now account for about half of the Ph.D. engineers, life scientists, physical scientists and math and computer scientists in the U.S., the National Science Foundation says. A Stanford University study estimates that half of all Silicon Valley high-tech companies have at least one founding member who is foreign born. Eight of 18 Ph.D.s in Dr. Sengupta's research program are foreign-born.

The immigration service, part of the Department of Homeland Security, says that in 2005 1.1 million immigrants received green-card visas, which means they are allowed to stay permanently and eventually apply for citizenship. But most green cards go to relatives of earlier immigrants. Congress caps the number of permanent visas available to skilled workers and their families at 140,000 a year. The result is that the typical wait for a permanent employment-based visa is now five years or more.

Congress also allows the State Department each fiscal year to issue 65,000 temporary employment visas -- so-called H-1B visas -- that allow skilled workers to stay in the U.S. for up to six years. But H-1Bs for the 2007 fiscal year ran out last month, five months before the fiscal year even begins and just weeks after the government began taking applications.

The immigration bill that passed the Senate in May would boost the number of permanent employment-based visas to 650,000 a year, although some of these would be available to the millions of unskilled illegal immigrants. The Senate bill also raises the yearly quota on H-1Bs to 115,000. Those numbers would admit "probably just enough" skilled workers "for now to avoid irreversible damage" to the economy, says Stanford's Mr. Siciliano.

Percent of foreign- and native-born scientists and engineers in the U.S. by occupational categories, 2000
  U.S. born Foreign born
Computer scientists 81.8% 18.2%
Mathematical scientists 88.4 11.6
Architects, surveyors and cartographers 87.4 12.6
Engineers 83.6 16.4
Drafters and engineering technicians 88.8 11.2
Life scientists 76.7 23.3
Physical scientists 75.3 24.7
Social scientists and related 90.2 9.8
Science technicians 87.2 12.8
Total 83.4 16.6
Source: Immigration Policy Center

But there's no comparable measure in an immigration bill passed last year by the House. With elections just months away, and the Republican Party deeply split over immigration, the Senate measure seems unlikely to become law.

That would leave immigration caps where they are, which worries business groups and high-tech employers. They warn that as India and China reform their securities laws, improve their graduate-education programs and gain access to venture capital, their skilled immigrants will abandon long waits for permanent U.S. visas and return home -- or never leave home in the first place.

For now, Dr. Sengupta is staying put as he continues his research on a weather satellite called Goes-R, the latest-generation Geostationary Operational Environment Satellite, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to launch in 2012. Goes-R will sit 20,000 miles above the equator and be capable of sending back an image of each 1.5-square-mile section of North and South America every five minutes. NOAA will be its primary user. But scientists world-wide will have access to the Goes-R data, which the government anticipates they will use to monitor fires, dust storms, air quality in the national parks, fish populations and the health of ocean coral, among other things.

From a squat office building on the edge of the Colorado State campus here, Dr. Sengupta is working to simulate and interpret the images that Goes-R will send back -- a project aimed at giving scientists a meaningful interpretation of the Goes-R images as soon as the satellite is launched. Under a separate contract with the Defense Department, Dr. Sengupta also is developing the science to forecast clouds hours before they form. Because lasers can't see through clouds, bombing missions over distant battlefields are often aborted when they run into overcast skies.

A physics major in his native Calcutta, Dr. Sengupta applied to U.S. graduate schools in 1995 to study radiative science, which looks at how the earth's heat is redistributed by clouds. Three universities offered tuition waivers and research assistantships. He chose Pennsylvania State University after a professor there called to invite him to join his research team as an $18,000-a-year assistant.

In 2000, he followed his mentor to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., one of the government's nine national labs, as a postdoctoral fellow. Three years ago, he moved to Fort Collins for his current $66,000-a-year research job at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, or CIRA, which is funded by NOAA and Colorado State.

U.S. colleges typically graduate about two dozen Ph.D.s a year in meteorology, Dr. Sengupta's field, and CIRA illustrates how reliant U.S. research organizations are on immigrants like him. At a recent CIRA symposium, 10 of 14 academic papers were presented by foreign-born researchers.

At the Ph.D. level, "our field would shrink by two-thirds if you cut out foreign immigration," says Andrew Jones, who heads Dr. Sengupta's data-simulation research group. When CIRA runs a job search, he adds, "the best person goes to the top of the list. It might be No. 3 or No. 5 before we get to an American citizen."

Dr. Sengupta arrived in the U.S. on a visa that is reserved for temporary visitors on education exchanges. Colorado State next sponsored him for an H-1B, which requires an employer to attest that it can't find a U.S. worker and is paying the immigrant the prevailing U.S. wage. In February, at the urging of CIRA's director, Colorado State offered to sponsor Dr. Sengupta for a type of green card that is reserved for what the immigration service calls first-priority workers.

In 2005, the immigration service awarded visas to 26,000 first-priority workers, including 5,606 termed outstanding professors or researchers. Because of their special talents, first-priority workers are exempt from the first step of a three-bureaucracy process that other skilled workers endure.

The First Step

That first step requires an employer to demonstrate to the Labor Department that it can't find an American to fill the job. For years, the process involved Labor Department offices at the state, regional and national levels. By last year, that bulky process had caused a backlog of 325,000 cases, some dating back to 1998. The department finally packed the files into cardboard boxes and dispatched them to special backlog-reduction centers.

In a statement, the department blamed its backlog on "an out-dated, paper based" system that it inherited "from the previous administration." The department says it is now computerizing its files and will cut the processing time to as little as 45 days.

In place of the Labor certification, Dr. Sengupta must prove that he is outstanding to the Department of Homeland Security, the next bureaucracy in the immigration process. A Nobel prize winner or a member of an international body like the American Academy of Arts and Sciences is a shoo-in. Younger scientists like Dr. Sengupta typically submit their published research and get noted scholars to praise their work, a process he hasn't yet begun because he fears being diverted from his research.

Daunting Backlog

But the immigration service's backlog is as daunting as the Labor Department's. Burned by findings that some of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists were in the U.S. legally, the agency began running FBI checks on all would-be immigrants, instead of just those who aroused special attention. By 2003, that had caused an 809,000-case green-card backlog that the immigration service says it hopes to clear in September. But Director Emilio Gonzalez boasts about the tough new security standards, and insists his agency isn't about to lower its guard to speed up the process. "As long as I'm here, national security will be our focus. We're not part of the Department of Education or the Peace Corps," he told reporters recently.

For Dr. Sengupta, the third step in the immigrant-visa process might be the steepest. Only 7% of the green cards reserved for skilled immigrants can go to applicants from any one country, a Congressional restriction aimed at encouraging diversity. That means that the State Department can give as many green-card visas to skilled workers from Singapore and Chad, for example, as it can to those from India and China.

The per-country cap has created a 71,000-case backlog, mostly among Indian and Chinese nationals who already have received clearance from the departments of Labor and Homeland Security, but exceed the 7% limit. The State Department estimates that a first-priority worker from India or China will wait another year to get to the head of the queue. Second-priority workers from India -- who include physicians, professors and Ph.D. engineers -- have a three-year wait in the State Department queue.

"It's like getting in line for a movie ticket -- only so many can get in for each show," says Michael Aytes, director of domestic operations for the immigration service.

The Senguptas are unabashed admirers of American ways. Dr. Sengupta says he's lost his passion for Indian cricket and now roots for the Denver Broncos. He drives a Ford, watches congressional debates on C-Span and fusses about the lawn of the airy Fort Collins house he and his wife, Nilanjana, bought two years ago for $225,000. Their 6-year-old daughter, Pourna, an American by birth, bubbles about a kindergarten project to help Pakistani earthquake victims.

"This is my country, as far as I'm concerned now," says Dr. Sengupta. He insists he'd leave only "if America chases me away." Still, he's puzzled by a system that invited and even paid him to study with leading U.S. scientists, but now seems indifferent whether he stays. "This thing escapes me," he says.

With four years left on his temporary visa, he isn't in imminent danger of being forced out, but feels little government encouragement to stay and profound uncertainty about whether his future lies here.

Once Colorado State files his application for a first-priority visa, he won't be able to change jobs -- even to take a teaching post or more-senior research position at the university. His ability to win grants and get security clearance is also restricted. "You want to grow and they tie your hands," he says. Without access to federal grants, he can't set up his own lab and train other scientists. Without security clearances, he can't work at many of the private-sector companies that will use his CIRA research to develop weather-forecasting computer programs. "I can do the science, but I cannot look at the applications the science generates," he says.

His mortgage company charges him a premium because of his temporary status. His permanent visa will cost him $10,000 in lawyers' bills and government fees, he calculates. His H-1B visa precludes him from earning extra income as a consultant or outside lecturer, which worries him as he calculates the eventual cost of Pourna's college education. Mrs. Sengupta, a special-education teacher in India, can't work under her visitor's visa -- instead, she volunteers at a day-care center and is taking education classes at a community college.

After Mrs. Sengupta had a difficult pregnancy with Pourna, the couple had hoped to adopt their next child. But U.S. adoption and foster-care agencies won't deal with immigrants who are here on a temporary visa. Adopting from India is out of the question: The State Department predicts a five-year wait before the child could join the Senguptas -- and that is after they get their permanent visas.

Top Home Countries

Representation by country of foreign-born science and engineering workers, 2000

  India China, Taiwan and Hong Kong Vietnam Former USSR Philippines Mexico Canada Other countries
Computer scientists 24.10% 16.6 5.1 7 4.4 2.6 2.8 37.4
Mathematical scientists 10.5 21.3 4.1 2.8 6.3 2.3 5.9 46.9
Architects, surveyors and cartographers 6.3 10 1.7 2.1 5.7 6.8 5.7 61.8
Engineers 12.4 15.8 6.9 3.6 4.9 3.2 3.8 49.5
Drafters and engineering technicians 4.4 5.4 14.7 4.1 9.7 12.1 2.9 46.7
Life scientists 11.3 29 1.3 4.9 2.3 2.3 4.1 44.8
Physical scientists 11.9 25.2 2.8 6.1 4.2 1.3 3.4 45
Social scientists and related 7.1 8.1 1.5 2.8 3.7 3 7.3 66.3
Science technicians 7.2 15.1 4.9 2.9 7.4 11.9 2.9 47.7
Total 16.7 16.4 5.7 5.4 4.9 3.7 3.4 43.8

Source: Immigration Policy Center

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