The US is missing out on trillions in economic gains thanks to worsening green card backlogs, according to projections from the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Roughly 7.6 million people are stuck in queues for lawful permanent residency—the majority of them new potential immigrants to the US who are stuck outside the country. Reducing green card barriers for those new entrants and for workers already in the US on temporary visas would add $3.9 trillion in gains to gross domestic product over 10 years, the BPC estimates in a report released Wednesday.
“We’re leaving trillions in GDP gains on the table by not dealing with this problem,” said Jack Malde, the center’s senior policy analyst for immigration and workforce policy.
Most of that economic growth would be driven by the addition of new immigrants to a labor force struggling with ongoing worker shortages. Lifting job restrictions on green card seekers already employed in the US would also boost economic productivity, the report finds.
Sources of Backlogs
Annual quotas on the number of green cards issued each year and on the share that can go to immigrants from any one country mean decade long waits for countries with high volumes of demand.
In the employment-based category, just 140,000 visas are available, fueling long wait times to secure permanent status for workers from India and China. And the 226,000 visa limit for the family-based category similarly feeds long queues for immigrant hopefuls in Mexico and the Philippines.
While processing delays have exacerbated backlogs in recent years, those annual caps account for the majority of immigrants waiting to secure a green card. The State Department and US Citizenship and Immigration Services determine when immigrants are eligible to apply for green cards based on the date of their immigration petition and the number of available visas.
In response to worsening backlogs, lawmakers this year pressed the Biden administration to allow immigrants with approved petitions to submit applications at the beginning of the fiscal year, enabling them to obtain interim employment and travel flexibility.
No action was taken on the proposal.
Although the report finds that the impact of adjusting status may be understated for immigrants in the US on temporary visas, nearly 99% of the economic gains from reducing current green card backlogs would come from adding new arrivals to the US. That’s a function of potential immigrants filling millions more job vacancies unfilled by US workers, Malde said.
“It’s simply not possible to fill these vacancies with unemployed Americans alone,” he said.
The five states with the largest immigrant populations—California, New York, Florida, Texas, and New Jersey—would likely see the largest benefit from reducing the backlogs. But proposals for state-based visa programs allowing state governments to seek foreign workers for industries with labor needs would allow for economic gains to be more evenly distributed.
Various congressional proposals have called for recapturing green cards unused in past years, setting a limit for an individual wait time before immediately receiving a green card, eliminating per-country limits and overall visa quotas, or adding more resources for processing.
None of those policy changes would be effective in isolation, Malde said—simply raising caps without adding more capacity at agencies like USCIS could lead to more visas going to waste. The projections of missed economic growth underscore the need for congressional action, Malde said.
“We have severe workforce shortages that are only getting worse as the population ages,” he said. “We’re in need of new workers. And immigrants bring lots of skills and knowledge that complement our existing labor force.”