About 200 people from 69 countries became U.S. citizens last month during a naturalization ceremony at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building here.
Another group will take the oath of allegiance this Friday. And another will follow two weeks later.
The frequency with which the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services churns out new Americans in Atlanta and other cities is in sharp contrast to the excruciatingly slow, uncertain process facing Prabir Mehta.
The 29-year-old native of India came to Atlanta six years ago as a college student but is nowhere close to gaining the "green card'' that constitutes permanent residence, let alone American citizenship.
He says he is caught up in a system that punishes legal immigrants here on work visas for getting ahead by forcing them to reapply for a green card every time they earn a promotion or raise. Or when they change jobs, as he did last year when he went to work as an information technology consultant.
"I'll probably have to wait for six years (for a green card),'' said Mehta, who lives in Dunwoody. "During that time, there can be no promotion. Raises and bonuses have to be kept to a minimum. ... It's a mess.''
Even as Congress and the American public are preoccupied with the debate raging over illegal immigration, a nationwide group that includes Mehta is working under the radar to overhaul the system governing legal immigration.
Immigration Voice, which boasts more than 3,000 members, formed after individual legal immigrants working on their own late last year failed to sway the Senate to adopt legislation easing restrictions on the number of foreign nationals allowed to enter the U.S. each year on work visas.
"It became clear that instead of scatter-shot efforts, what we needed was an organization with a plan and a sustained campaign to get our voice heard,'' says the mission statement on the nonprofit organization's Web site.
Of the nearly 950,000 legal immigrants who came to this country in 2004, the latest year figures from the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics are available, only 155,330 were admitted on work visas. The rest were primarily relatives of U.S. citizens or resident aliens.
Once those relatively few work-related immigrants get here, they face strict caps on qualifying for legal resident status. Under federal law, only 140,000 green cards can be distributed each year, mostly to skilled workers like Mehta holding at least a master's degree.
Also, since no more than 26,000 can come from any single nation, legal immigrants from India, China, Mexico and the Philippines - countries with disproportionately large numbers of immigrants pouring into the U.S. - face even longer waits for green cards than immigrants from other nations.
Those numbers haven't changed since 1990, said Charles Kuck, a lawyer in Atlanta with a firm that has the largest immigration practice in the Southeast.
"Essentially, that's before the computer became available and before several waves of economic growth,'' he said.
"In the high-tech field, say you've got an engineer from China who comes here. He's looking at waiting five years to get a green card. That's insane.''
Waits for green cards were much shorter 20 years ago, when Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law legalized illegal immigrants who were already in the country, including Maria Garcia, executive director of Hispanic Community Support Inc., a faith-based organization in Duluth that aids Hispanic families.
Garcia entered the U.S. from Mexico in the early 1980s on a tourist visa and stayed after it expired. She said it only took her and her ex-husband a couple of years after the 1986 law passed to qualify as permanent legal residents, although the requirements seemed daunting at first.
"When I went there, my hands were shaking,'' Garcia said. "(But) we had no way to go back home. We had no way to do anything else. ... Then she gave us this paper and said, 'You're set.' It was all because of that law.''
Since then, however, the wait for green cards has grown steadily longer.
Mehta said what's even more frustrating is being forced to start the process over because of the rules governing the work visa program.
After earning a master's degree at Georgia Tech in human-computer interaction, he went to work in 2002 for the university's Office of Information Technology. He said he could not be promoted or given any significant pay raise because it would have meant reapplying for a green card.
But after three years, Mehta said he felt he could do better given his education and experience. So last year, he took a new job as a senior consultant with SourceSpace, a small company in Alpharetta.
The downside is that because of the job switch, he had to restart a green card application process that so far has cost him $20,000.
Now, Mehta is at the back of a line of legal immigrants seeking permanent resident status, and he said he's worried that an already substantial backlog of more than 750,000 green card applicants will get worse if Congress passes a major reform of the laws governing illegal immigrants.
The comprehensive bill that cleared the Senate last week would give the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the U.S. a path to legal residency and, eventually,
"I have a lot of sympathy for them,'' Mehta said. "(But) how is (the federal government) going to be able to process 12 million immigrants when they can't process 750,000?''
Relief for Mehta and other legal immigrants here on work visas could come in the form of a separate bill introduced into the Senate this month.
The Securing Knowledge, Innovation and Leadership (SKIL) bill would increase the cap on work-related green cards issued annually from 140,000 to 290,000. It also would exempt some classes of legal immigrant workers from the cap - including people like Mehta who hold a master's degree - thus freeing up space for others.
"I don't believe enough attention has been focused on legal immigrants, especially the highly skilled workers who contribute to our economy and comply with our laws,'' Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the bill's sponsor, said during a speech on the Senate floor the day he introduced the measure.
"It is my hope that this legislation will allow U.S. companies to retain a highly educated work force until we can channel more American students into the math, science and engineer pipeline.''
Ironically, Cornyn also is one of the chief backers of a provision in the comprehensive Senate bill that calls for building more fences along the U.S. border with Mexico to keep illegal immigrants out.
Kuck said Cornyn's sponsorship of both approaches makes sense because it's impossible to stop illegal immigration without making it easier for people to enter this country legally.
"He knows there's two sides to the coin,'' Kuck said.
But the SKIL bill faces an uphill climb. For one thing, groups that see unskilled, low-income illegal immigrants as a threat to American jobs are making the same argument against easing restrictions on legal immigration.
"You've got American workers out in the Silicon Valley who were making $70,000 a year and are now unemployed because their companies are bringing in people from overseas and paying them $35,000,'' said Phil Kent, the Atlanta-based national spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control.
"I don't sense any need for another category of highly skilled workers replacing the American middle-class
Even members of Congress who support the SKIL bill say it must take a back seat to more pressing priorities.
"The SKIL bill is a central part of a modern immigration system,'' said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. "(But) the most important thing we need to do is secure the borders first and stop the easy flow
of illegal aliens into this
Mehta, however, may be running out of patience with Congress. He said that, under the current system, his anticipated six-year wait for a green card probably would be followed by another delay of five or six years before he could qualify for citizenship.
In the meantime, he said he would like to start his own company, but that would mean having to refile for a green card yet again.
Mehta said a lot of his friends from India have grown so frustrated with the system that they have returned to their homeland or moved to Canada, Great Britain, Australia or New Zealand, where the immigration systems aren't so restrictive.
"I might do that,'' he said. "I'm not able to do what I want to do here.''
Legal immigrants must meet certain criteria to become eligible for a green card, granting them permanent legal-resident status in the U.S., and then fulfill another list of requirements to be naturalized as an American citizen:
• To be eligible for lawful permanent residence (green card) in the U.S., an immigrant must be at least one of the following:
• related to a U.S. citizen
• an alien who has an approved visa petition filed in their behalf by a U.S. employer
• an alien with an immigrant visa number available from the State Department unless exempt from numerical limitations. Immediate relatives of United States citizens are exempt from this requirement
• a fiance who was admitted to the U.S. on a visa and then married the U.S. citizen who applied for the visa for them.
• an asylee or refugee who has been in the U.S. for at least a year after being given asylum or refugee status and still qualifies for asylum or refugee status
• the winner of a visa in the Diversity Visa Lottery
• a Cuban citizen or native who has been in the U.S. for at least a year after being inspected, admitted or paroled into the United States. This provision may also apply to a spouse and children living with a Cuban citizen or native.
• To become a U.S. citizen, a legal immigrant must:
• be at least 18 years old
• have been lawfully admitted
into the country for permanent residence
• have been in the country continuously as a legal resident for at least five years without a single absence of more than one year
• have resided within a state or district for at least three months
• have shown good moral character by not having a serious criminal record or been involved in illegal gambling, prostitution, smuggling of illegal aliens, excessive alcohol or drug abuse, polygamy or failing to support dependents
• be able to read, write, understand and speak English
• be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of U.S. history and government
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service