Salma Saifee spends much of her days searching the Internet for jobs she knows she cannot have.
Three years ago, the 27-year-old married her childhood friend and left her human-resources job in Udaipur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to join him in Washington where he works as a software engineer for Microsoft.
Arif Saifee is in the U.S. on an employment visa, commonly known as the H-1B, and shortly after he married Salma began the process to get permanent legal status, or green cards, for them both. As his wife, Salma holds an H-4 visa, which allows her to live and study in this country — but not work.
So while she waited for the time when she could work, she took courses to sharpen her skills in human resources and earned professional certification — all in preparation for a job market she said seems flush with opportunity.
But a processing delay in the spring held up the work permit that comes as part of their green-card application and which would have finally allowed Salma Saifee a chance to work.
And now, like the spouses of other foreign professionals working in this country, she finds herself in an indefinite holding pattern, the result of a huge backlog for employment-based visas.
The backlog, which the government first announced in mid-September to be effective Oct. 1, affects up to an estimated 1 million people and could extend Saifee's inability to work for another four to six years.
The backup is especially hard on workers from such countries as India, China and the Philippines; even their best and brightest, who get first preference for these employment-based visas, are facing long delays.
"A whole life can change in a span of four to five years; I don't want to lag behind," said Saifee, who holds a master's degree in human resources from MLS University in Udaipur. "We knew coming in I would not be able to work right away but with my qualifications and experience, we were hoping that would turn around."
Saifee scours the Internet for human-resources jobs, hoping a local employer would consider sponsoring her for her own H-1B, the kind of visa that allows her husband to work.
"I see so many jobs opening and call each and every one and they say, 'Sorry, you don't have a work permit,' " she said. "There are jobs; it's not like this is a tight market. I even offered to volunteer so I can get some experience and they say, 'We can't employ volunteers and not pay them.' "
Ran out of visas
The Saifees and others like them who are seeking employment-based green cards are the apparent victims of federal government efficiency.
The backlog that traps them resulted when the U.S. Departments of Labor and Homeland Security sped up the process that transforms foreign workers in this country into legal permanent residents.
So many applicants were processed so quickly, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services within DHS ran out of visas to issue from among the 140,000 allocated each year.
Further exacerbating the problem, experts believe a huge bubble was created seven years ago when Congress — in response to a high-tech industry worker shortage — raised to 198,000 from 65,000 the number of H-1B visas it allots. While the cap reverted to 65,000 in 2003, many of those workers are now seeking permanent residence in the U.S.
"I guess we're victims of our own success," said Bill Strassberger, Washington, D.C.-based spokesman with Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"We were doing all we could to process these faster, and as a result we're oversubscribed" — governmentspeak for too many applicants for available visas.
While the delay means the workers must wait longer for their green cards, sometimes stuck with the same employer while they wait, the real impact is felt by spouses like Salma Saifee. "Everything in our lives is so dependent on this," she said.
She's enrolled in classes at Bellevue Community College, but says, "I can't keep taking classes forever."
The delay puts everything on hold, she said. "If things remain like this, I may want to take a step back and consider moving back to my country, where I can get employment."
Employer sponsorship is one of only a few ways foreigners can obtain permanent legal status in the U.S.
Many are skilled workers holding employment visas that allow them to work at such high-tech giants as Microsoft, Real Networks and to a lesser extent at universities and research centers nationwide.
If employers decide they want to keep the workers permanently, they begin a process to get them permanent status, available not just to the person on the payroll but to spouses and dependent children as well.
Each year, the government makes 140,000 of these visas available, dividing them up based roughly on skill and in such a way that citizens from any one country receive no more than 7 percent of available visas.
While employers don't need to prove that no U.S. workers are available for jobs given to H1-B visa holders, if they decide to sponsor an individual for permanent residency they must receive certification from the U.S. Department of Labor that the job that person would take cannot be filled by a U.S. resident.
Once certified, the employer files a petition with the Citizenship and Immigration Services on the foreign worker's behalf for permanent residency.
For many years, the Labor Department was slow in getting jobs certified, and once they were certified, immigration officials were equally as slow in processing permanent residency petitions.
So for years many of the 140,000 employment-based green cards the government made available each year went unused, explained Seattle immigration attorney Cletus Weber.
The current backlog occurred when both agencies began speeding up the process and overshot the number of visas available.
Citizenship and Immigration Services isn't allowed to issue more visas than Congress has allotted, and it won't accept an application for a visa for which there's no available visa number.
That means that applicants like the Saifees, who had already been waiting three years to be able to apply for a green card, found the date for which a visa would be available pushed back even further.
"The overall impact is that for employers who are seeking to hire some of the very best individuals — outstanding researchers or those with advanced degrees — it may be years before they get permission to permanently hire such workers," said Seattle immigration attorney Steven Miller.
"For those who can go anywhere in the world, the U.S. is an increasingly difficult place to come — especially if you have a family."
For those caught in the backlog, the only relief in sight are controversial provisions in the U.S. budget bill that would make available about 90,000 additional employment-based visas by recapturing unused quotas from past years and amending the rules so that family members do not count against the annual cap.
Congress could vote on the bill as early as next month.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
From foreign worker to permanent legal resident
The complicated process that takes someone from foreign worker to permanent resident status involves three main steps.
Labor Certification — An employer must receive certification from the U.S. Department of Labor that there are no U.S. workers available for a job the employer wishes to fill with a foreign worker.
Form I-140 — A petition filed by the employer on the worker's behalf for permanent residency in the U.S.
Form — I-485 — The worker's application for permanent residence, it may be filed in conjunction with a work permit for spouses and children in the household eligible to work.