As an international scholar from India with a Ph.D. from a prestigious institute in Germany, I came to the U.S. on a J-1 visa in 2016 to live my dream.

But my hope to learn from  the experts, get exposed to state-of-the-art infrastructure and contribute to scientific research is being shattered little-by-little each day. 

There are days and weeks where I spend more time worrying about what the Trump Administration will do next to prevent my stay here than doing my research. 

Ankita Arora

This not only decreases my productivity but also affects my mental health. I am no longer confident that I can fulfill my dreams here in the land of opportunity. This is my story, but I know I am not alone. 

Many immigrants on work visas feel like outsiders, that their future, hopes and dreams rest in the hands of an immigration officer. Recent executive orders and a rescinded student ban have led to an enormous increase in these sentiments and uncertainty among international students and scholars. 

The executive order blocks green cards for immigrants applying outside the U.S. with some exceptions. While it appears that these restrictions might not affect those already in the U.S. on work visas, this administration’s policies predating the executive order have increased the backlogs of green card applications which are absolutely needed to have stability and live permanently in the U.S.

One in eight workers in Colorado is an immigrant and have contributed billions of dollars in taxes, making up an important part of the state’s labor force. An estimated 800,000 immigrants who are working legally in the United States are waiting for a green card. This unprecedented backlog in employment-based immigration has its roots within an outdated immigration law. The green card process follows an annual quota (140,000) and within that limits that only 7% of immigrants can come from a single country. 

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These country limits have largely remained unchanged since 1990s – not reflecting the change in the employment burst. As a result, these provisions disproportionately affect applicants from countries such as India and China due to high demands fueled by the boom in the tech sector. 

Most of those waiting for employment-based green cards are Indian nationals. And the backlog among this group is so skewed that an Indian national who applies for a green card now can expect to wait up to 50 years to get one. These wait times have devastating consequences on the lives of immigrants. Workers are not eligible to switch jobs beyond their expertise and cannot be unemployed for more than a month. 

Socially, they cannot easily travel overseas to see their families, and their spouses may have difficulty obtaining legal permission to work. To make matters worse, any non-citizen children who reach age 21 before their parents acquire a green card risk deportation. In summary, a large portion of these prospective immigrants’ lives and those of their family members are in limbo. 

Hence, many highly trained international workers are increasingly choosing to move to other countries with more accessible systems for acquiring permanent residence.

Recently, two bills addressing the backlogs and country limits of employment based-green cards — Backlog Elimination, Legal Immigration, and Employment Visa Enhancement (BELIEVE) Act (S. 2091) and Resolving Extended Limbo for Immigrant Employees and Families (RELIEF) Act (S.2603) — have been introduced in Congress.

These bills include provisions to eliminate the per-country limits for employment-based immigrants and increase the number of green cards available each year, providing much-needed reforms in the outdated immigration laws.

Passing these bills is first step toward clearing up the huge backlog of employment-based green cards and making international scholars feel at home in the U.S. 

Remember that immigrants are more than the economic and innovation benefits they provide the U.S. — they are also people. Everyone has a role to play in making members of our immigrant community feel welcomed and secure.

The most important thing we, as international scholars, want from you is to understand that being an immigrant has always been hard for us but more so now. 

I implore Coloradans to reach out to our elected officials (find yours here) and voice support for these welcome changes. Furthermore, being empathetic, doing your part to increase awareness of this issue and reaching out to support your immigrant colleagues can make a huge difference. 

Ankita Arora is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado-Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. The views expressed here are those of the author and not those of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

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Ankita Arora lives in Thornton.