Under a Cloud For Dr. Sengupta, Long-Term Visa Is a Long Way Off Rules Limit Entry, Prospects Of Foreign-Born Scientists Despite Demand for Them Latest in Weather Satellites By JUNE KRONHOLZ June 27, 2006; Page A1 FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Manajit Sengupta studies clouds -- how they can be used to forecast hurricanes, how they may relate to global warming, how to predict their formation over a battlefield. In the post-Katrina world, Dr. Sengupta's expertise would seem to make the 39-year-old Indian national a highly prized immigrant. Colorado State University, which helps fund the Fort Collins institute where Dr. Sengupta works on a temporary visa, thinks so highly of him that it is sponsoring him for a type of permanent visa that is available only to "outstanding researchers." Even so, Dr. Sengupta can expect a years-long wait for a visa that would allow him to stay and expand his research. With the economy humming, so is the demand for visas for skilled workers such as scientists and engineers. But Congress caps the number of visas available to them. Meanwhile, terrorist concerns and antiquated government procedures mean there are enormous paperwork backlogs for would-be immigrants. The Labor Department, which clears one of three forms that most skilled immigrants must file to become permanent residents, has a backlog of 235,000 cases. The Citizenship and Immigration Service, which clears the second form, is 180,000 cases behind. And after those two agencies have acted, the State Department, which issues the visas, predicts waits of a further one to five years for even the most highly trained Indian- and Chinese-born immigrants. That leaves people like Dr. Sengupta in long-term legal limbo. After 10 years in the U.S. on temporary and student visas, he feels at home here. He's bought a house and is raising a U.S.-born daughter. But his immigration status means he can't change jobs, apply for certain government grants or adopt a child, as he and his wife would like to do. "I have this feeling: Am I wanted here or am I trying to push myself on this country?" he says. <REPRINTSDISCLAIMER> The immigration debate swirling through Congress this summer is mostly about low-skilled illegal immigrants. Largely ignored are the highly skilled legal immigrants who help keep the U.S. a technology leader, even as U.S. students struggle with math and science. While U.S. industry is eager to have them, the government caps the number of employment visas far below market demand. As other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, loosen their rules on immigration to attract these same highly skilled workers, the U.S.'s long-term competitiveness could be hampered. Next Big Thing "Economists worry about another place owning the very next big thing" -- the next groundbreaking technology, says Stanford University economist Dan Siciliano. "If the heart and mind of the next great thing emerges somewhere else because the talent is there, then we will be hurt." The foreign-born now account for about half of the Ph.D. engineers, life scientists, physical scientists and math and computer scientists in the U.S., the National Science Foundation says. A Stanford University study estimates that half of all Silicon Valley high-tech companies have at least one founding member who is foreign born. Eight of 18 Ph.D.s in Dr. Sengupta's research program are foreign-born. The immigration service, part of the Department of Homeland Security, says that in 2005 1.1 million immigrants received green-card visas, which means they are allowed to stay permanently and eventually apply for citizenship. But most green cards go to relatives of earlier immigrants. Congress caps the number of permanent visas available to skilled workers and their families at 140,000 a year. The result is that the typical wait for a permanent employment-based visa is now five years or more. Congress also allows the State Department each fiscal year to issue 65,000 temporary employment visas -- so-called H-1B visas -- that allow skilled workers to stay in the U.S. for up to six years. But H-1Bs for the 2007 fiscal year ran out last month, five months before the fiscal year even begins and just weeks after the government began taking applications. The immigration bill that passed the Senate in May would boost the number of permanent employment-based visas to 650,000 a year, although some of these would be available to the millions of unskilled illegal immigrants. The Senate bill also raises the yearly quota on H-1Bs to 115,000. Those numbers would admit "probably just enough" skilled workers "for now to avoid irreversible damage" to the economy, says Stanford's Mr. Siciliano. WITHIN THE U.S. Percent of foreign- and native-born scientists and engineers in the U.S. by occupational categories, 2000 <TABLE cellSpacing=1 cellPadding=3 width=250 border=1><TD class=p11 vAlign=top><TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>U.S. born <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>Foreign born <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Computer scientists <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>81.8% <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>18.2% <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Mathematical scientists <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>88.4 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>11.6 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Architects, surveyors and cartographers <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>87.4 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>12.6 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Engineers <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>83.6 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>16.4 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Drafters and engineering technicians <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>88.8 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>11.2 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Life scientists <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>76.7 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>23.3 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Physical scientists <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>75.3 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>24.7 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Social scientists and related <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>90.2 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>9.8 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Science technicians <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>87.2 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>12.8 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top>Total <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>83.4 <TD class=p11 vAlign=top align=middle>16.6 Source: Immigration Policy Center But there's no comparable measure in an immigration bill passed last year by the House. With elections just months away, and the Republican Party deeply split over immigration, the Senate measure seems unlikely to become law. That would leave immigration caps where they are, which worries business groups and high-tech employers. They warn that as India and China reform their securities laws, improve their graduate-education programs and gain access to venture capital, their skilled immigrants will abandon long waits for permanent U.S. visas and return home -- or never leave home in the first place. For now, Dr. Sengupta is staying put as he continues his research on a weather satellite called Goes-R, the latest-generation Geostationary Operational Environment Satellite, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to launch in 2012. Goes-R will sit 20,000 miles above the equator and be capable of sending back an image of each 1.5-square-mile section of North and South America every five minutes. NOAA will be its primary user. But scientists world-wide will have access to the Goes-R data, which the government anticipates they will use to monitor fires, dust storms, air quality in the national parks, fish populations and the health of ocean coral, among other things. From a squat office building on the edge of the Colorado State campus here, Dr. Sengupta is working to simulate and interpret the images that Goes-R will send back -- a project aimed at giving scientists a meaningful interpretation of the Goes-R images as soon as the satellite is launched. Under a separate contract with the Defense Department, Dr. Sengupta also is developing the science to forecast clouds hours before they form. Because lasers can't see through clouds, bombing missions over distant battlefields are often aborted when they run into overcast skies. A physics major in his native Calcutta, Dr. Sengupta applied to U.S. graduate schools in 1995 to study radiative science, which looks at how the earth's heat is redistributed by clouds. Three universities offered tuition waivers and research assistantships. He chose Pennsylvania State University after a professor there called to invite him to join his research team as an $18,000-a-year assistant. In 2000, he followed his mentor to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., one of the government's nine national labs, as a postdoctoral fellow. Three years ago, he moved to Fort Collins for his current $66,000-a-year research job at the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Atmosphere, or CIRA, which is funded by NOAA and Colorado State.