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Uncapped Potential: A case for ending country-based green card quotas

In 2016, John Doe, an Indian national who earned a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University, founded a US-based computer vision company. For three years straight, Doe participated in the United States temporary work visa lottery while pursuing permanent residence. Doe’s lottery entries were unsuccessful, and the delays in the green card process prompted Doe to leave the United States for his home country and take his company with him, resulting in the layoff of 20 American employees.

Today, millions of high-skilled immigrants are stuck in this frustrating limbo, waiting years to become “green card holders,” or permanent residents of the United States. Currently, there are annual limits and per-country green card quotas based on the applicant’s “state of chargeability,” which is most commonly their country of birth. These quotas create enormous backlogs that bring uncertainty about immigrants’ future status and discourage many international students, professionals, and entrepreneurs—some of the United States’ most talented immigrants—from building a career and a life in America. Failure to solve this problem threatens the competitiveness of many domestic companies and undermines US innovation, resulting in preventable economic losses. Moreover, the inequitable distribution of per-country green card quotas for highly educated immigrants is blatantly discriminatory, as it privileges nationality over merit. Congress must reevaluate its green card limits based on state of chargeability, especially as the demand for green cards continues to soar.

In the US, applying for a green card is a multi-step process. First, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves an employment-based immigrant petition. The beneficiary of this petition can then apply for a green card only if the quota set for their state of charge- ability has not already been reached for the year. If the quota has been filled, the applicant enters the green card waitlist, where they are stuck in limbo until a green card becomes available. In a supposed attempt to democratize the share of green cards, the US prevents immigrants from any individual birthplace from receiving more than seven percent of issued green cards in a year. As a result, the backlog consists almost entirely of immigrants from countries with the largest number of petitioners, such as India and China. Indian immigrants have the largest backlog, making up 75 percent of the total waitlist, with a hopeless wait of up to 50 years for talented (and often US-educated) professionals and entrepreneurs. At the current rate of increase, the US’s total green card backlog will surpass 2.4 million people by 2030.

The US’s current green card system generates both overt and hidden economic losses. Many immigrants waiting to become permanent residents have skills in short supply in the US labor market, particularly in STEM fields. The largest number of backlogged applications for Indian and Chinese immigrants occur in the EB-2 and EB-3 green card categories, which are the primary green cards given to foreign doctors, skilled workers, and other professionals with undergraduate and graduate degrees. On average, Indian and Chinese immigrants receive wage offers that are about 30 percent higher than the average offer for other EB-2 and EB-3 petition beneficiaries. Clearly, these individuals are in high demand in the labor market and are filling much-needed positions. There is no sound economic reason to uphold policies that make these higher-paid immigrants wait longer for green cards because of their birthplace. It is also worth noting that over 92 percent of EB-2 and EB-3 individuals from India who receive green cards are already in the United States working with temporary status, mainly under the H-1B work visa or F-1 student visas. Unlike green cards, H-1B work visas and F-1 student visas are issued without regard to nationality, with the former only having an overall annual cap instead of a per-country cap. H-1B workers can renew their visas indefinitely as long as they remain on the green card waitlist, which underscores the arbitrary nature of the state of chargeability rule.

Although these individuals can continue to work in the United States while they move toward the front of the line, there are many restrictions during the wait that prevent them from fully con- tributing to the economy and society as a whole. Primarily, H-1B workers waiting for their green cards cannot easily change positions or employers. If an H-1B holder changes jobs, their new employer needs to restart the green card process from scratch, something many employers—and employees—are reluctant to do. There is also the potential for the new petition to be denied, causing these immigrants to hesitate to change jobs regardless of what this new opportunity may entail. If H-1B employers go out of business or downsize during the waiting period, the visa holder needs to find a new position within 60 days to remain in the US and the green card queue. It is also extremely challenging for these visa holders to start their own businesses, which limits their potential to innovate and create more jobs within the US.

Another harm of the green card process is that the US loses many skilled immigrants to other countries. The H-1B restrictions and the absurd wait times drive billions of dollars in investment and thousands of skilled workers abroad to countries with more open employment-based immigration policies, such as Canada. In 2017, the number of skilled workers in STEM fields that received an opportunity for permanent residence from the Canadian government exploded, with accepted applications from Indian citizens increasing from 9,584 in 2016 to 26,340 in 2018. Recognizing the flow of immigrants from the US, the Canadian government has said it will grant permanent residence to 195,800 economic migrants in 2020.

Beyond the economic impact, these per-country quotas are fundamentally inconsistent with America’s stated values of equal opportunity. Though those who support these quotas claim to support giving a fair shot to immigrants from every country, the hard cap of seven percent of issued green cards does not account for the variations in population of foreign nations. As previously stated, this disproportionately affects immigrants from India and China. It is a basic American principle that hiring decisions can- not be based on race, religion, or nationality. However, these policies and quotas allow the US government to filter the workforce based on nationality rather than merit. Although diversity is often a motivation for the inclusion of people with different backgrounds, in this case, the same argument is used to discriminate against people from certain countries.

In many ways, the most effective solution to this problem is simple: removing per-country caps. With the current system, immigrants in similar employment situations end up with wait times that diverge wildly for no reason other than their country of birth. Removing the per-country cap would balance out the wait times for immigrants, making the average time to process everyone in the EB-2 and EB-3 categories approximately six years. A caveat is the possibility of increased wait times for people from smaller countries, though these would not compare to the current decades- long wait for Indian nationals. This reform would allow for a flood of immigrants from India and, to a lesser degree, China, at the expense of moderately long wait times for everyone in line, which is something all Americans should reasonably support. This change should also be coupled with an increase in the annual green card quota. Congress should link employment-based immigration quotas to economic growth, as rigid caps make little to no sense in the dynamic economy of the United States.

Congress must reevaluate and increase the green card limits based on birthplace due to the inequitable distribution of immigrant beneficiaries in the backlog. It is important to remember that this issue has existed throughout American history, and the American response has consistently been discriminatory. This issue is not simply about fairness; immigrants have been and continue to be the engine of the American economy, and the government should facilitate their entry into the US workforce rather than prevent it.