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Following all the rules, Indian national Sanjay Mehta came to the United States on a temporary work visa in 1997, hoping to build a glittering career in the fast-moving information technology sector. But nine years later his application for a green card remains snarled up in a bureaucratic logjam, and he looks with frustration at the strides made by illegal immigrants who he says simply jumped the fence from Mexico.

“Washington has taken notice of them … But what about the plight of legal immigrants to this country? We seem to have been forgotten,” said Mehta, who settled in Arizona with his wife and raised two children.

Many of the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States are hopeful of gains from a new Democrat-led Congress next year, after massive street protests in U.S. cities pushed their cause to the top of the political agenda earlier in the year.

But more than a million legal immigrants like Mehta from as far afield as Europe, India and China complain that their lives have been placed on hold as they battle red tape to become permanent residents in the United States.

Many are highly skilled, with science, electrical engineering and medical degrees, and are hired by U.S. companies, universities and research laboratories under a strict visa system with an annual cap of 65,000.

Those that get through into the United States then face a wait of up to 12 years for an employment-based green card, in a process that damages their professional lives and may even jeopardize U.S. competitiveness, immigrants, employers and analysts say.

LIVES LEFT IN LIMBO

All high-skilled immigrants seeking U.S. residency in 2004 had a college degree or better, and many would ordinarily be on a fast track career in research departments, hospitals and technology firms where they work across the United States.

But under the terms of the residency application they are tied to the job that they came into the country on, and face the prospect of watching colleagues advance while their lives remain on hold, advocates say.

“The long wait throws high-skilled professional immigrants’ lives in limbo,” said Aman Kapoor, the founder and president of Immigration Voice, a national grassroots organization representing skilled immigrants across the United States.

“They are not able to move to better job opportunities in the prime period of their career, which is very professionally frustrating for them,” said Kapoor, an Indian national who works as a programmer analyst at Florida State University.

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