US green card applicants heading elsewhere overseas

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When the US senate failed to agree upon changes to US immigration laws concerning illegal immigrants and border control, these were not the only issues left pending. The questions of how to clear the backlog of green cards, and increasing the cap were left unanswered.

The average waiting period to get a green card is six years or longer and currently there are over half a million applications pending, according to Immigration Voice, an advocacy group that tracks US government data.

With economies in Asia and the South Pacific on the rise, an exodus of foreign workers who are tired of waiting, are either returning home or choosing to work elsewhere overseas.

With the "baby boomer generation" reaching retirement age, Joe Freddoso director of Cisco Systems Research Triangle Park is concerned there is going to be a shortage of skilled professionals to replace them.

"US universities graduate about 70,000 information technology students annually. Many predict that number won't meet the need for a projected 600,000 additional openings for IT professionals between 2002 and 2012, and the openings created by retirements," said Freddoso.

Freddoso believes the problem will spread unless the government allows more foreign workers to enter the country, and speed up their residency process.

Some critics say increasing the numbers of skilled foreign workers would depress wages and take positions away from American workers.

"We should only issue work-related visas if we really need them," said Caroline Espinosa, a spokeswoman with Numbers USA, a group pushing for immigration reduction. "There are 2.5 million native born American workers in the math and computer field who are currently out of work. It begs the question whether we truly need foreign workers."

Competition for skilled labour is on the increase, Canada, India, New Zealand and Australia are among countries that aggressively market themselves to professionals in the US, and offer faster processing of work permits and immigration applications.

This year New Zealand has received 1,900 skilled work permit applications, and of those 17% were people working in the US.

After steady lobbying from technology companies, Congress is also paying more attention to the issue. The breakdown in the Senate April 7, left undecided the proposal of raising of the annual cap for green cards to 290,000.

In his February economic report, President Bush outlined proposals to overhaul the system for employment-based green cards.

Bush's proposals were to exempt spouses and children from the annual limit of 140,000 green cards. Dependents make up about half of all green cards issued annually.

Secondly, to replace the existing cap with a flexible market based cap that responds to the needs employers have for employing foreign labour.

And finally, to raise the seven percent limit for green cards issued to nations such as India that have many highly skilled workers.