A bill (H.R. 3648) to provide relief to immigrant workers who’ve waited decades for green cards because of allocations by country of origin recently failed to come to a vote on the House floor after support for the measure dwindled, even among immigration advocates.
Green cards offer recipients the ability to reside permanently in the US and provide them with a pathway to citizenship.
Securing an employment-based green card also means that recipients can shed the restrictions of temporary work visas, which tie their immigration status to sponsorship by an employer. Instead, they can more easily change jobs and seek promotions that match their skills in much the same way as US citizens.
But current backlogs leave thousands of approved applicants—especially immigrant workers from India and China—stuck for years or even decades on temporary visas while they wait for green cards to become available.
Reducing wait times is a key priority for immigration advocates, and lawmakers in both chambers of Congress continuously have tried—and failed—to address the issue. But even groups that support more employment-based immigration, and not just immigration restrictionists, haven’t been able to agree on how best to address the issue.
1. What’s causing the backlogs?
The number of employment-based green cards allocated each year is capped at 140,000, although that number can go up when unused family-based visas from the previous year roll over into the employment-based category. More often than not, an applicant with an approved petition goes into the backlog because there isn’t a green card available in that year—and maybe not for years to come.
No more than 7% of the visas in a given year, meanwhile, can go to applicants from a single country of origin. Those per-country caps create particularly long wait times for applicants from India and China, the biggest sources of high-skilled immigrants on H-1B temporary work visas.
Those specialty occupation visas are the most popular category for workers in tech, engineering, or medical fields where US employers struggle to find home-grown talent. Most employment-based green card applicants have already been in the US working for years on H-1B visas, which have outpaced available green cards in growth thanks to the tech boom.
Rollover of unused family-based green cards during the Covid-19 pandemic meant nearly twice as many employment-based visas were available during the past two years, but that only put a small dent in the long-term backlog, which reached roughly 1.4 million applications last year.
The wait times now are so long that some Indian applicants could be stuck in the backlogs for their entire lives without ever securing permanent status.
In recent years, an increasing number of children of those immigrant workers have faced removal from the US when they “age out” of dependent status. Children of temporary visa holders can enter the US as dependents, but must secure their own visa if they turn 21 before their parents’ green cards come through.
2. How do wait times affect competition for talent?
Major employers like Amazon.com Inc. and Google LLC—among the top destinations for immigrants on temporary work visas—have called for reducing green card backlogs to give employees relief from long wait times and to boost talent.
Green card backlogs and uncertainty over their long-term status in the US could deter talented workers from immigrating to the country. And colleges and universities have struggled to rebound from a decline in international enrollment that began even before the pandemic, raising concerns about the foreign talent pipeline.
Other efforts to boost international talent—such as a bill exempting immigrants with doctorates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from green card caps—have been stymied.
A recent wave of layoffs in the tech industry, among the biggest fields employing workers on H-1B visas, highlighted the negative effects of green card backlogs. The sudden job losses meant many workers who have lived in the US for years would be forced to find new H-1B visa sponsors within 60 days or face removal from the US, even if they’ve started the process of applying for a green card.
3. How could Congress address the backlogs?
The current House legislation would phase out per-country caps for employment-based green cards and raise the quotas for family-based categories. It would also expand travel authorization and work flexibility for backlogged applicants.
But that’s not the only suggested approach. Lawmakers from both parties have offered proposals to “recapture” green cards that have gone unused as far back as 1992 because processing delays meant they didn’t get issued before the end of the year.
Other proposals have called for lowering barriers to green cards for high-demand workers such as doctors, nurses, and engineers, and creating new visa categories for entrepreneurs who start businesses in the US.
But to comprehensively address backlogs, immigration advocates say Congress ultimately must raise the total annual green card quotas and address per-country caps to meaningfully reduce backlogs.
4. Why hasn’t Congress acted yet?
The current House bill to phase out per country caps failed despite having the Biden administration’s backing.
Even smaller, more piecemeal solutions to green card wait times in recent years have struggled because they’ve been tied to other thorny political issues, like border security and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Last Congress, both chambers passed their own versions of legislation to phase out per-country caps but were unable to iron out differences in conference.
Advocates for employment-based immigration, including the American Hospital Association, also have opposed legislation to remove per-country caps over concerns that doing so could lead to immigrants from countries other than India and China losing out on green cards, especially those immigrants—like nurses—who don’t originally come to the US on H-1B visas.
Employment-based immigration is of special interest to the health-care industry because it relies on international workers to fill critical occupations.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, meanwhile, have warned that ending per-country caps without significantly adding to overall visa levels wouldn’t give Black migrants a fair shot at coming to the US.
Groups that advocate for lower immigration levels, like the Center for Immigration Studies, also have said eliminating per-country caps would undermine American workers.