For more than a decade, Vishal Turkar has played by the rules.
He came to the United States in 2000 to get a master's degree in architecture, drawn to the University of Colorado by its academic excellence and its function as a magnet for students from around the world. He got a job in Sacramento and, in 2005, applied through his employer for a green card.
He has been waiting since.
He met a woman in India and married her but, despite her electrical engineering degree from an Indian university, she can't work in the United States.
Vishal can't change jobs or start a business of his own. Many times, he said, he has considered returning to India, joining friends who came to the United States at the same time as he did but have since gone back to India to advance their careers.
"We've been paying our dues right from day one," Vishal said. "Basically, it's been a big pause button until your number arrives."
The fate of the nation's millions of undocumented immigrants tends to attract outsize attention in the emotionally charged debate over the nation's immigration laws.
Often overshadowed in the conversation are high-skilled immigrants who are in the United States legally and are also awaiting their chance.
Turkar has a visa that allows him to work at an architectural firm in Oakland. He is waiting for a green card that would let him integrate into American society.
As a Senate group puts together a sweeping bill that will likely bolster skilled immigration, advocates are urging Congress to consider not just the number of foreigners who come to the country to work, but also their status once they are here.
Industry groups seeking more skilled worker visas say an increase should be tied to reforms that make it easier for skilled workers to seek permanent residency.
"Green-card reform for us is about unleashing the full economic potential of many people who are already here but could do so much more," said Robert Hoffman, senior vice president for government relations at the Information Technology Industry Council, whose members include Apple, Google and Microsoft.
Hoffman noted that foreign tech workers who lack green cards can't be promoted without going to the back of the green-card line. They also can't launch startups.
"It's in the interest of the tech community to see that startups are vibrant," Hoffman said.
The last few years have seen a flurry of bills addressing high-skilled immigration, and it hasn't been just Democrats sponsoring bills. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, otherwise faulted by critics for adopting the rhetoric of immigration hard-liners, used nearly identical language to President Barack Obama's in backing green cards for foreigners who get advanced science degrees.
But politics have gotten in the way. It's often a matter of legislative horse-trading: Supporters of more green cards for skilled workers want to compensate by giving fewer visas to other immigrants, dividing votes along partisan lines and blocking compromise.
This time, things could be different. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, said proposals to encourage high-skilled immigration will have a better chance of passing as part of the overhaul in the works.
"We didn't think it should be either/or; we think it should be both," Matsui said of trading one category of immigrants for another. "That's why all this needs to move in a comprehensive immigration bill and not just pick and choose winners and losers."
Industry representatives cite a shortage of properly trained American workers. The unemployment rate for workers with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math - also known as STEM - is far below the national rate, while the concentration of foreign-born workers in STEM is disproportionately high.
Proposals to bolster high-skilled immigration could be a boon for employers, who say they are constantly hunting for more capable employees.
But critics say there is little oversight to ensure that employers recruit Americans before turning to foreign workers. That makes it easier for businesses to employ immigrant workers who are less expensive and bound to their sponsoring employer, making it extremely difficult for them to accept an offer from a rival.
Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, said an influx of foreign workers, many of them not the best or the brightest, is undercutting American labor.
"There are (Americans) who have the qualifications and don't have the jobs," Eisenbrey said, adding, "If you flood the market with foreign workers, you will discourage U.S. workers" from pursuing advanced degrees or careers in STEM fields.
There are also concerns about the status and treatment of skilled immigrants. The prevailing stereotype of an immigrant laborer in the United States is of an unskilled worker toiling in a menial job, relegated to a lower economic caste. Skilled immigrants occupy a different section of the economy, but they still face restricted movement and diminished prospects.
Workers on H-1B visas, which are aimed at skilled immigrants, can apply for green cards. But because of an annual per-country cap of 9,800 employer-sponsored green cards for any given nationality, immigrants from countries such as China and India face years-long backlogs.
Intel, which employs about 5,000 people in the Folsom area, quickly files to sponsor most foreign employees for green cards but knows they will likely face long waits, according to Peter Muller, the company's director of government relations.
"That's a restriction for them as an employee, so it's not good for them and it's not good for us," Muller said.
The H-1B cap stands at 65,000 a year, an allocation that ran out in less than a week in 2008 and 2009. California leads the nation in H-1B applications, and in 2010-2011 three of the top five metropolitan areas for H-1B requests were in California.
Muller said Intel looks to foreign-born workers only after it has exhausted the potential pool of native employees.
"We do face a shortage for particular jobs and particular skills, and these shortages require us to hire foreign-born workers," Muller said.
There are multiple bills before Congress that would eliminate per-country limits, increase the annual allocation of H-1B visas or make it easier for STEM students to obtain green cards. The Obama administration and senators working on a broad overhaul bill have endorsed the latter principle.
Importing skilled workers is one way to address labor shortages; another is to make it easier for foreign students to stay. The "vast majority" of immigrant workers Intel hires have advanced degrees from U.S. schools, Muller said. When the company recruits college students, he added, typically about half of those graduating with advanced STEM degrees are foreign-born.
Supporters of linking advanced degrees to green cards argue that, absent a better mechanism for retaining foreign students, U.S. universities are effectively equipping immigrants with skills they will use to compete with American companies when they return home.
Jason Rabinovitch is considering doing just that. A native of Canada, Rabinovitch is getting a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering at the California Institute of Technology and is hoping to find a job in the burgeoning private aerospace industry when he graduates.
But many of those jobs require green cards. Rabinovitch said he has considered trying to sponsor himself for one, a process that can cost thousands of dollars and carries no guarantee of success.
"It's kind of a Catch-22: you need a green card to get the job, but on the other hand you need a job to get a green card," he said.
Rabinovitch expects to graduate in 2014. He is exploring what might come next, either in the United States or if he returns to Canada.
"I'm really unsure," he said, "of where things are going to go."
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @jeremybwhite.