When Gokul Gunasekaran was offered a full scholarship for a graduate programme in electrical engineering at Stanford University, he saw it as the chance of a lifetime.
He had grown up in Chennai, India, and had a solid job offer with a large oil company after getting his undergraduate degree. He came to America instead, got the Stanford degree and now works as an engineer at a data science startup in Silicon Valley.
But for the past five years, he has been waiting for a green card that would give him full legal rights as a permanent resident. In the meantime, he is in a holding pattern on an H1-B visa, which permits him to live and work in the United States but does not allow him easily to switch jobs or start his own company.
“It was a no-brainer when I came to this country, but now I’m kind of regretting taking that scholarship,” said Gunasekaran, 29, who is also vice president with a non-profit group called Immigration Voice that represents immigrants waiting for green cards.
Immigration Voice estimates there are some 1.5 million H1-B visa holders in the country waiting for green cards, many of whom are from India and have been waiting for more than a decade.
Many of these immigrants welcomed President Donald Trump’s executive order this week to the federal departments overseeing the programme to review it, a move that may lead to H1-B visas being awarded to the highest-paying, highest-skilled jobs rather than through a random lottery.
Their hope is that merit-based H1-Bs might then lead to merit-based green cards. “I think less random is great,” said Guru Hariharan, the CEO and founder of Boomerang Commerce, an e-commerce startup. Hariharan, who was previously an executive at Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) and eBay Inc (EBAY.O), spent 10 years waiting for his green card and started his
own company as soon as he got it.
Green cards can be a path to naturalization and Hariharan expects to become a U.S. citizen soon.
H1-B visas are aimed at foreign nationals in occupations that generally require specialised knowledge, such as science, engineering or computer programming. The U.S. government uses a lottery to award 65,000 such visas yearly and randomly distributes another 20,000 to graduate student workers.