Fix elusive for backlog of employment green cards
Overall quota for obtaining one hasn’t changed since 1990
WASHINGTON — An estimated 800,000 immigrants who are working legally in the United States are waiting for a green card, an unprecedented backlog in employment-based immigration that has fueled a bitter policy debate but has been largely overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s border wall and the administration’s focus on migrant crossings from Mexico.
Most of those waiting for employment-based green cards that would allow them to stay in the United States permanently are Indian nationals. And the backlog among this group is so acute that an Indian national who applies for a green card now can expect to wait up to 50 years to get one.
The wait is largely the result of an annual quota unchanged since 1990, and per-country limits enacted decades before the tech boom made India the top source of employmentbased green card-seekers.
The backlog has led to competing bills in Congress and has pitted immigrants against immigrants, setting off accusations of racism and greed and exposing a deep cynicism about the prospects for any kind of immigration reform in a polarized nation. The debate centers on the potential benefits of a quick fix to alleviate the wait times for those already in the backlog versus a broader immigration overhaul that could allow more workers to seek permanent residency, address country quotas and expand the number of available green cards.
Among those pushing for a quick resolution are business leaders, who worry that a congressional stalemate — doing nothing at all — could push Indian workers out of the United States and cause other skilled workers to seek easier paths to citizenship in other countries.
The crisis of employment-based green cards burst into the open in October after a narrow bill to address the issue nearly passed the Senate in a unanimous consent motion, after sailing easily through the House. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, stepped in and blocked it.
The bill’s supporters cast it as an easy and obvious fix — and one that “arguably has wider and more bipartisan support than any other immigration bill that’s been considered in this body in recent years,” its Senate sponsor, Mike Lee, R-Utah, said after Durbin objected. “The reason for that is it’s focused on a single, serious, solvable problem that I think we can all agree needs to be solved.”
But Durbin and other critics of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which aims to provide relief to Indians by eliminating the country quotas for employment green cards, said it isn’t so simple. Because the bill did not increase the overall number of green cards, they argue the backlog will worsen, wait times for all nationalities will extend to 17 years, and a trickle-down effect will make it difficult for working professionals from anywhere other than India to come to the United States.
Durbin proposed his own bill, the Relief Act, which eliminates the country quotas but also raises the number of both employment and family-based green cards. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., also proposed a comprehensive bill.
Lee has circulated an amended version of the bill that would not increase the number of green cards but would add provisions Durbin has sought to protect families in the backlog. It is unclear if other Senators would be on board with the new language.
Families are a significant element of the backlog, as spouses and children of green card applicants count toward the annual cap of 140,000 employment green cards. Under Durbin’s bill, spouses and minor children would not count against the total quota, and children of applicants would no longer age out at 21, which has made them ineligible for green cards.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, declared Durbin’s bill “the best legal immigration reforms overall” and found that it would “virtually double” the total number of legal immigrants receiving permanent residence during the next decade while reducing wait times for everyone to less than a year.
But Indian tech workers have responded with desperate fury, protesting Durbin’s actions because they say they think his bill doesn’t have a chance in a Republican-controlled Senate.
“The point is it cannot pass. Not with Trump in office,” said Aman Kapoor, the leader of Immigration Voice, an activist group that backed the original legislation and has led a weekslong campaign against Durbin, calling him a “racist” and accusing him of “ethnic cleansing” for stopping the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. “You can’t add one green card now under Trump.”
A green card is the final step in the legal immigration process — before becoming a U.S. citizen — and the government doles out about 1 million per year, 140,000 of which are employmentbased.
Skilled immigrants, including doctors and engineers, rally in 2007 on Capitol Hill in Washington to protest long delays in getting green cards. Now, the delays are longer than ever.