CHICAGO | Zhenzhong Xu, a software engineer, came to the United States from China in 2001 to study computer science. Eleven years later, he and his wife are among the many immigrants who are still waiting to get their residency permits.
Legalization of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants has been getting all the attention through President Obama's proposed immigration reforms.
For skilled legal immigrants like Xu, rumors have been rampant that the reforms will be at their expense. Immigration lawyers and lobbyists, however, are hopeful this legislation will be more balanced, unlike the 2007 bill.
Obama's proposal for comprehensive reforms aims to restructure immigrations laws for all groups of immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, farm workers and high-skilled laborers. The government has tried in the past to bring all immigrants under one umbrella law, with no success.
In 2007, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, introduced a bill which proposed to remove an employment-based immigration system in favor of a point-based system. The political climate in 2007 was such that the bill had to trade tighter regulations on high-skilled immigrants in exchange for legalization of undocumented immigrants.
"It was a feeding frenzy," said Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "One faction was ready to throw the other under the bus to get their issues in the legislation."
This bill was met with a lot of criticism from immigrants and activists alike.
"None of the 2007 proposals is relevant now," said Aman Kapoor, co-founder of Immigration Voice, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for immigration reforms. "It is not the base legislation now."
The issue of legalization of the undocumented immigrants is the most important immigration issue.
"We hope that the reforms provide the immigrants due process of law and that they have provisions to make sure families are not separated," said Tara Tildwell Cullen, speaking on behalf of National Immigration Justice Council, an organization that works with undocumented immigrants and refugees.
"Nearly 4 percent of the population is living in shadows, being exploited and being taken advantage of," Kapoor said. "Undocumented immigrant issues will overshadow the rest. It would be naive to assume otherwise."
But the reforms should address issues of nearly 2 million people who are here legally as well, Kapoor said.
According to the U.S. State Department, the immigration backlog has people who filed their paperwork as early as Nov. 9, 2002.
"I sometimes worry about having to go back when my visa expires," Xu said. Xu's wife is an educated professional who is prevented from working because of the visa restrictions on dependents.
These have been deterrents in keeping the skilled work force in the country.
As a part of the reform, there are a lot of different issues being discussed including providing undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, increasing annual work visa caps and tackling the immigration backlog.
However, at this point, it is not known what the president's proposal entails.
"(The legislators) have come to understand that relieving the pressure from one part of the system just moves it to another," Lichter said. "What we are seeing is a broad-based consensus on what is wrong and what needs to be fixed so that we don't end up in this same mess 10 years from now."