House Votes to Remove Green Card Caps

Bill creates a first-come, first-served employment-based green card system

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer July 10, 2019
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​The U.S. House of Representatives voted July 10 to eliminate limits on the percentage of employment-based green cards awarded to immigrants from any one country.

The legislation would expedite the flow of high-skilled workers from countries such as India and China who face inordinately long waits for employment-based green cards and would clear the wait list in less than a decade, resulting in happier workers and reduced turnover, especially in the tech industry. But the bill would also lengthen wait times for immigrant workers from other countries.

Currently each country is allotted up to 7 percent of the 140,000 employment-based green cards issued per year. This limitation was imposed to prevent one country or a handful of countries from dominating the flow of employment-based immigration to the United States.

But "per-country limits and low annual limits—about half of which go to dependents—combine to create long wait times for immigrants, with waits for Indians the longest," said Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, a public-policy research organization based in Arlington, Va.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the bill's sponsor, said that the combination of long backlogs and per-country limits on green cards prevents U.S. employers from accessing and retaining the employees they need to stay competitive.

The changes would apply beginning with fiscal year (FY) 2020, which starts Oct. 1, and would apply to:

  • EB-2 visas, for workers with advanced degrees or exceptional ability.
  • EB-3 visas, for skilled workers and professionals.

Transition Years

Because there are so many Indian nationals waiting for green cards, eliminating the ceiling could conceivably mean that green cards would almost entirely go to Indians for years to come.

To alleviate that concern, at least upfront, the legislation guarantees workers from other countries approved for employment-based green cards before the bill's enactment would receive them on time as promised, as well as a three-year transition period (FY 2020-2022) that reserves green cards for immigrants from other countries while the Indian backlog is reduced.

In FY 2020, 15 percent of the green cards offered under the EB-2 and EB-3 categories would be reserved for natives of countries other than India and China. The allotment would drop to 10 percent in FY 2021 and FY 2022. No more than 25 percent of each year's reserved allotment could go to natives of any single country.

After the transition period, Indian immigrants would get the vast majority of the employment green cards for roughly a decade to clear out their backlog. And after that, because the number of employment-based green cards is limited, and the number of applicants exceeds the number of green cards available, new backlogs will likely develop in the future for workers from all parts of the world.

Supporters of the bill include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and employers in the technology industry, which rely on the H-1B visa workers who adjust to employment-based green cards—many of whom are currently stuck in the backlogs.

SHRM advocated for the bipartisan legislation in the House and called its passage an important first step in addressing workplace immigration issues.

"Eliminating employment per-country caps will create a first-come, first-served green card system, putting talent and skills first so we can meet the current and future workforce needs of this country," SHRM said in a press release.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Obtaining U.S. Employment Visas]

Future Prospects

The companion measure in the Senate, which gives the Labor Department more enforcement authority over the H-1B visa program, was blocked last month by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. Paul sought a special exception to provide green cards to nurses, one occupation particularly disadvantaged by the green card change, because they're not eligible for H-1B visas. Senators from both parties have since placed holds on the bill, preventing it from advancing.

The Trump administration has also been cold to the measure, with officials in the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Legislative Affairs signaling that the White House does not support it.

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