A local engineering company’s immigration attorney worked to provide reassurance to members of the Columbus international community who have been anxious about future U.S. policy affecting foreign workers.

Before introducing LHP Engineering Solutions’ in-house attorney to the group of about 50 at The Commons on Thursday, LHP owner Ryan Hou explained he had been where they are now — 32 years ago, when he was in the United States on a work visa.

“I understand the frustration and anxiety in the process,” he said.

When he was starting out, Hou hired his own attorney to shepherd him through the process of getting a green card, a process that back then took months. Today, for workers from China, the process can take five to seven years. For workers from India, it can take 10 years.

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While facing those kind of waits, anxiety has further intensified among LHP employees and others in the international community in Columbus as the Trump administration rolls out different possibilities about rules for foreign workers in the U.S., including rules interpreted inaccurately on social media, said Blair Wheat, LHP’s in-house specialist on employment-based immigration law.

Colin Renk, executive director of the America China Society of Indiana, described the landscape as foreign policy dictated by Twitter, with leaders who are governing communicating directly with the governed — with some unintended misconceptions creating even more confusion.

“We’re getting a stream-of-conscious policy coming out without it being finalized,” Renk told the group. “There are ramifications to that.”

Among them has been an estimated 50 emails a day from LHP employees to Wheat, who was the main speaker for Thursday’s session. The emails have contained questions about what will happen to international families if the new administration changes the H1B visa program.

About H1B visa

An H1B is a non-immigrant visa that allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. The program is used extensively in Columbus to provide engineering talent to area manufacturers.The United States issues about 85,000 new H1B visas each year, and recipients may stay in the United States up to six years — with most of the visas going to high-tech workers, according to the federal government. The visas are so popular that the federal government conducts a lottery to distribute them.

Wheat reassured people in the audience on Thursday — many from China, Japan and India — that employment-based immigration in not ending as they know it. The anxiety is occurring when individuals do their own research on the Internet, he said.

Thursday’s session was designed to provide an objective, clear explanation of the immigration policy as it exists now, and also provide an explanation of pending federal legislation about immigration, he said.

The session was different from a gathering earlier this year sponsored by the Islamic Society of Columbus Indiana, which met at IUPUC in February to discuss the effect of President Trump’s first executive order on the local Muslim community.

That order on immigration would have prohibited citizens of seven countries with primarily Muslim populations from being allowed entry in the United States for 90 days. The countries are Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. All refugees were to be banned from entering the United States for 120 days. That executive order was stayed during the IUPUC meeting and a second, modified one was also put on hold by a federal judge.

Thursday’s session was about current immigration law and pending legislation that could affect international workers who are here legally, but could have their efforts to obtain permanent resident status stymied by proposed changes.

Immigration law process

Wheat began by explaining the process the federal government uses to make administrative changes in immigration law and how slow that process is.He then talked about a leaked purported executive order from the Trump administration, never issued, that has circulated on social media, creating a great deal of fear among the international community who are utilitizing work visas.

The leaked document said the Trump administration wanted to roll back some of the immigration advances the Obama administration had put in place and change the process for obtaining an H1B from the lottery system with a system of giving the visas to the highest-paid workers.

Wheat said the likelihood of this document becoming a rule to be published under administrative changes in the law to be almost zero, describing the leaked document as campaign rhetoric.

Wheat then went through various House and Senate immigration-related bills being considered on the federal level and giving the merits, and problems, with each.

Saying it was not his assertion, but rather the research of those who calculate the likelihood of certain bills passing on the federal level, Wheat said the probability of any of the changes is less than 1 percent.

“It’s just unlikely to happen,” he said. “The H1B visa program has not changed for years and probably won’t change for years.”

Hou said he has become more politically active with federal candidates after seeing how much power government has on the legal immigration process and how frustrated workers are becoming in trying to obtain a green card — a process that can take decades. A green card signifies becoming a permanent U.S. resident, which includes permission to live and work in the United States.

Although LHP has in-house immigration counsel, Hou acknowledged that many companies don’t. He hoped Thursday’s session would provide some guidance and help to international workers in Columbus.

“We’re unusual — we’re a small company, but this is how important it is for our skilled engineers,” he said. “I understand both sides. I am an employer here and I have been an employee here on an H1B visa, and got a green card and became a citizen. All of these restrictions are making people scared.”

Hou was particularly dismayed at the United States’ continuing policy of pursuing top engineering talent from around the world and bringing them here for a short time, and then sending them home to compete with the U.S. in the future.

“They come to Purdue University, and work here for a time and we send them home,” he said of the international engineering talent that comes to Indiana but leaves after their visas expire.

“On a city level, for Columbus, I want them to feel welcome here, settle down here,” he said. “They need a green card to feel they belong in the United States.”

Learning about immigration legislation

To learn more about immigration legislation or to track progress on pending bills, visit govtrack.us or predictgov.com.

— Provided by Blair Wheat, employment-based immigration law attorney for LHP Engineering Solutions, Columbus

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.