Monday, January 01, 2007

Demand grows for green cards

As foreign faculty increase, a new Virginia Tech policy outlines whom the university will sponsor for green card applications.

From left, Joao Setubal, deputy director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, talks 

with Zhuo Song from China and Passorn Wonnapinij from Thailand, both students in the Genetics, Bioinformatics and Computational Biology program. Setubal, from Brazil, is among more than a dozen Virginia Tech employees trying to obtain a green card.

Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times

From left, Joao Setubal, deputy director of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, talks with Zhuo Song from China and Passorn Wonnapinij from Thailand, both students in the Genetics, Bioinformatics and Computational Biology program. Setubal, from Brazil, is among more than a dozen Virginia Tech employees trying to obtain a green card.

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BLACKSBURG -- Joao Setubal was no stranger to the United States when he arrived at Virginia Tech from Brazil in January 2004.

He and his family had two extended stays in the country from 1987 to 1992 and from 2000 to 2002 as he studied and worked at the University of Washington.

Now 49, Setubal had always stayed in the U.S. on temporary visas tied to his work or his studies. He came to Tech to work as a researcher at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute on an H1-B visa, good for up to six years.

Near the end of his second year at Tech, when he realized Blacksburg was a place he and his family would like to settle, he asked the administration about sponsoring him for a green card.

But he knew nothing about the process or about whether Tech would help him get his green card, which would allow him to be a permanent resident.

"There wasn't much information," he said. "I had to actually talk to other people who had gone through the process and they told me, 'Oh, this is what happens.' And then I learned about the names of important, key people."

New policy

In an attempt to clarify its policy on green card sponsorship, Tech's governing board passed a resolution in November that spells out who it will sponsor for green card applications throughout the university.

The move was also a response to an ever-increasing demand for foreign faculty, particularly at universities that specialize in math, science and engineering. According to the American Society for Engineering Education, only seven colleges in the country employ more engineering faculty than Virginia Tech.

The total number of foreign faculty at Tech has more than doubled since 2000.

Mike Gibbons, director of data research for the American Society for Engineering Education, said the problem with finding Americans to teach engineering courses lies in the pipeline for the positions, which runs through engineering graduate schools. More than half of the doctoral degrees in engineering awarded by American universities each year go to foreigners.

Provost Mark McNamee said Tech is not targeting foreign faculty; the recent influx is just an outgrowth of the market. The first part of the green card process, labor certification, ensures that no qualified American applicants were passed over for the position being held by the applicant. So the notion that universities are "outsourcing" American jobs to foreigners is false, he said.

The provost anticipates the universitywide policy will help with recruiting, but characterized it as a formality.

"The reason we decided to formalize this in a policy is just to sort of have a record for what we're doing," he said. "We'd like to have everything we actually do in practice reflected in a policy."

Richard Bissell, executive director of the policy and global affairs division for the National Academies, said Tech is one of several large, public universities to recently establish clearer universitywide green card policies that can be accessed over the Internet.

"It sends the signal that the institution is at least prepared to help you," he said. "It would make it a friendlier environment to recruit high-quality foreign scientists and engineers to come to Virginia Tech."

Bureaucratic process

Setubal had plenty of colleagues to turn to at VBI. He's now a deputy director of the institute, whose employees come from more than 25 different countries.

And while Tech sponsored Setubal and he hopes to get green cards for himself, his wife and his oldest daughter next month, he said the process would have been easier if he had been more informed. For instance, his oldest daughter, who was born in Brazil, was approaching her 21st birthday when he first asked about getting a green card. Once people turn 21, they can't apply for a green card through their parents.

"This is a bureaucratic process that has several steps towards it," he said. "And it was a little frustrating to get to hear about all the little details that you have to go through either as they came up or through hearsay talking to other people."

Gerald Berkley-Coats, Tech's assistant director of international support services, handles employees' visa requests. He's seen his workload increase over the past few years and the university is planning on hiring another person to help him handle the requests. He said most universities are coming around to the idea of creating formal policies for sponsoring green card applicants. About 175 Tech employees have green cards.

There are another 259 Tech employees on H1-B visas. About half of them will be applying for green cards. Berkley-Coats said costs for obtaining a green card usually run between $3,000 and $5,000. The wait usually ranges from two to three years, though it can extend up to five years because of backlogs of immigrants from countries such as China and India.

Under Tech's new policy, only employees applying for full-time, salaried positions with the potential to keep them at Tech for several years qualify. The position must be considered "significant" by the department and requires approval of the department head, dean or other senior managers, depending on the position. Postdoctoral employees -- scholars or researchers paid to do academic study at the university, usually by grants that fund their work for a limited time -- are not part of the policy.

Fee reimbursement

While Tech's policy on whom to offer green card sponsorships is now spelled out, the level of support provided to faculty is still determined on a case-by-case basis. Some faculty receive reimbursement for fees from the university and others just receive letters from Tech supporting their application and help from Berkley-Coats.

Setubal has spent about $7,500 in his efforts to obtain permanent residency for himself, his wife and one of his daughters since applying about a year ago. He will not be reimbursed.

Earlier this year, the state attorney general's office ruled that no state employees can be reimbursed for attorney's fees in the green card application process. Those fees make up more than 90 percent of the cost of applying.

Berkley-Coats said the attorney general's office agreed in early December to allow Tech to reimburse employees for the fees again after some lobbying from the university. The reimbursement must be spread out over three years, however, helping to ensure that the employee stays with the university after receiving the green card.

The attorney general's office also stipulates that green card applications for all state employees be handled through Kaufman & Canoles, a law firm with offices in Hampton Roads, Williamsburg and Richmond.

The state has contracted out this work since 1997 and Kaufman & Canoles has been doing it since 2003. In that time the office has handled 54 green card cases from Virginia Tech at a cost of about $207,000.

Some state agencies, such as the University of Virginia, use their own immigration attorney to handle the three-step legal process. UVa's green card policy is identical to Tech's.

McNamee said the university is considering creating a position at Tech similar to the one at UVa rather than have faculty deal with a law firm with offices more than three hours from Blacksburg.

'Good atmosphere'

McNamee said the impact foreign professors have had differs from department to department. He compares the employee list at VBI to the United Nations.

That was never more evident than last June, when Setubal helped organize a just-for-fun World Cup office pool. It gave faculty from soccer hotbeds such as Germany, England and Setubal's home country an outlet to talk about their favorite sport.

"In Brazil, this kind of thing happens in every office," he said. "But it's just Brazilians among Brazilians. Whereas here, you know, Brazil is playing against Holland and I know a couple of Dutch guys and I say, 'Oh, we will have a game tomorrow!' It adds to a good atmosphere."

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