In February, a grizzled 50-something white man approached two Indian avionics engineers at a bar outside Kansas City. He began haranguing them about an all-too-familiar topic: their visas. After bar patrons kicked out the agitator, he returned with a gun, screamed “Get out of my country!” and shot both engineers, killing one of them, Srinivas Kuchibhotla. The alleged shooter, Adam Purinton, is now facing hate crime charges in federal court.
Police delivered the news to the victim’s wife, Sunayana Dumala, that night. (The story of the hate crime against Srinivas Kuchibhotla was chronicled in WIRED’s July issue). Even in her grief, she realized that her husband’s death would put her immigration status in jeopardy. “The same night I lost Srinivas, I knew,” Dumala said in a call from Kansas this week, where she has since returned to work as a database developer. Though the couple had already been waiting for permanent residency for seven years, she was dependent on her husband’s H-1B visa to stay in the US—and there’s no protocol in place for what happens when that person dies.
Dumala flew to her native Hyderabad days later for her husband’s last rites. After the services, she began a process of bureaucratic wrangling to be able to return home to the US, where she had lived since 2007. Luckily, she was assisted by immigration attorneys from her workplace, Intouch Solutions, and her husband’s company, Garmin. Rep. Kevin Yoder, the Republican congressman from Dumala’s area of suburban Kansas, advocated for her case with immigration and customs officials, as well. Dumala applied for two different visas: an H-1B sponsored by her company and a U visa, which is reserved for victims of crime. She finally returned home to Kansas this spring on a temporary fix known as “humanitarian parole,” used in emergency situations to allow entry to someone is otherwise inadmissible. She’s on a 12-month work authorization while she waits for her visa to be approved.
But it’s likely Dumala’s immigration saga has just begun. Even if she receives one of those visas, she’ll be shunted to the back of the decades-long line of Indian tech workers waiting for a green card.
Soon after her husband’s murder, a programmer named Saicharan Manga, the vice president of the Midwest chapter of a national grassroots group called Immigration Voice, reached out to Dumala. The nonprofit, comprised largely of Indians, was formed in 2005 with the goal to speed up the employment-based green card process for high-skilled immigrants. The group’s latest cause: to remove the nationality caps on employment-based visas. Of the approximately 120,000 job skill-based green cards given out each year, no more than 7 percent can be awarded to any one nationality. That’s great if you’re a product manager from, say, Finland, a small country with relatively few immigrants. But if you’re Chinese or Indian—the nationalities of the vast majority of H-1B immigrants in US companies—the cap creates an epic bottleneck.
“‘Legal discrimination’ is how it has been described to me by more managers in the US than any other issue I’ve ever worked on on Capitol Hill,” says Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, a DC-based organization that represents major tech companies like Facebook and Microsoft in immigration policy. Right now, the feds are still processing green cards for Indians with advanced degrees who first applied in 2008.
This month, Immigration Voice recruited Dumala to join more than 80 advocates on a trip to DC to promote the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, a bill sponsored by Yoder. The bill, which has 271 bipartisan cosponsors, would phase out the country cap, eventually allowing the green cards to be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. (These immigrants check the boxes favored by Republicans: they’re highly-skilled and they’ve entered the country legally.)
At a reception in DC this month, Yoder took a picture with Dumala and posted it on his Facebook page, writing that she “had faced the threat of deportation.” While Dumala was never in deportation proceedings, the post was enough to evoke renewed interest in her immigration status. One of her attorneys, Susan Bond, fired back at trolls that leapt to the inaccurate conclusion that Dumala resides in the US illegally. “The couple were NOT here illegally,” Bond tweeted. “The maniac that shot him said those exact words. How are you different?”
Historically, legislation aiming to remove the immigration country cap hasn’t fared well: a similar bill introduced in 2011 passed the House but stalled, and subsequent attempts in 2013 and 2015 never reached a vote. The chances of removing the cap “as a stand-alone bill? Zero,” says Corley. “But as part of a package, I could definitely see it.”
Yoder is hoping that DACA, the Obama-era initiative that allows people brought to US as children to stay in the country but that President Trump now wants to end, can provide that package. He aims to combine a resolution for Dreamers, a border security measure, and his country cap proposal into one bill. “In some ways the president has broken up the logjam by flipping the DACA executive order to Congress,” he says. Industry behemoths like Google, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Texas Instruments have endorsed Yoder’s bill. Saicharan Manga from Immigration Voice says he’s not picky about how it gets passed. “We want to get this done, no matter how.”
Short of large-scale reform, Dumala’s immigration lawyers contacted Yoder’s staffers last week about pursuing a private bill to hasten their her permanent residency—a last resort measure pursued for exceptional immigration cases. While Yoder’s office says they’re considering it, both Yoder and Dumala say they’d prefer a larger fix. For that, they’ve formed a powerful alliance to boost the profile of the country caps bill. “Ideally, she would receive status outside of Congressional action, and we’d utilize the energy from her story to fix the issue going forward,” Yoder says. “It would be a tribute to her late husband if his murder somehow led Congress into action. It wouldn’t erase her pain, but it would give her some solace to know his death created a wave of positive solutions for her community—that he didn’t die in vain.”
It would also allow Dumala to stay in the US. She hopes to remain at her home in Kansas, but concedes that the speed of her permanent residency process will factor into her decision. “By sharing my story, I want others to be proactive and not wait until a tragedy strikes to react,” she says. “I need more than likes or shares on Facebook.”
Correction: Sunayana Dumala is from Hyderabad, India. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated her hometown as Bangalore.