Today, hundreds of thousands of highly skilled foreign nationals, particularly Indians, are languishing in immigration backlogs, waiting years for the chance to obtain permanent residence (also known as a green card). The lack of employment-based green cards harms the competitiveness of U.S. employers and exacts a large personal toll on those who must wait.
Understanding the Indian Green Card Backlog
The long waits for employment-based green cards are caused by two primary factors. First, the 140,000 annual quota is too low to accommodate the number of skilled foreign nationals able to be absorbed successfully in an economy the size of America’s. The 140,000 annual limit includes both the principal and dependent family members. For example, in 2009, dependents utilized more than half of the slots for employment-based visas – 76,935 of 140,903.
In addition to the 140,000 overall annual limit on employment-based green cards, there is also a per country limit, which has a disparate impact on immigrants from countries with a large population of highly educated professionals, particularly India and China. The Immigration and Nationality Act, in Section 202(a), details the per country limit: “[T]he total number of immigrant visas made available to natives of any single foreign state . . . may not exceed 7 percent . . . of the total number of such visas made available under such subsections in that fiscal year.” That would limit employment-based immigrants from one country to approximately 10,000 a year (out of the 140,000 quota), although another provision permits nationals of a country to exceed this ceiling if additional employment-based visas are available. Still, in general, in the most common employment-based category, fewer than 3,000 Indians per year can immigrate.
The Indian Backlog in the Employment-Based Third Preference (EB-3)
The reason Indian nationals will continue to wait a long time for employment-based green cards in the employment-based third preference (EB-3), the most common employment category, is the demand for their labor combined with the per country limit has created a large Indian backlog.
The backlog of Indians in the employment-based third preference could be as large as 210,000. One can estimate the backlog of Indians in the EB-3 category from available data. Earlier in 2010, the U.S. Department of State listed 49,850 Indians on the waiting list in the third preference category with a priority date prior to January 1, 2007. Priority dates normally coincide with the filing of a petition or of labor certification, an early stage in the employment-based green card process. However, that 49,850 figure does not include all the cases at various stages in the process at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services with a priority date prior to January 1, 2007. Rounding that figure upwards would get to at least 60,000 (and it could be higher).
To reach another 150,000 Indians for fiscal years 2007 through 2011 requires only about 15,000 individual Indian professionals sponsored for green cards each year for 5 years, with each averaging one dependent, another 15,000, for a total of 30,000 a year for 5 years or 150,000. To illustrate why an estimate of at least 15,000 Indians sponsored for green cards annually in EB-3 is reasonable, consider that 61,739 new H-1B petitions (for initial employment) were approved for Indians in FY 2008, and 33,961 Indians were approved for new H-1B petitions in FY 2009. A large proportion of H-1B visa holders are sponsored for green cards. In addition, employers frequently sponsor for green cards skilled foreign nationals already inside the country in another temporary status, such as L-1 (for intracompany transferees). Attorneys estimate 20 percent of those waiting for employment-based green cards are in a status other than H-1B.
Backlog is Large and Few Are Removed From Backlog Each Year
With no change to current law, an Indian-born professional sponsored today could wait decades for an employment-based green card. Due to the per country limit, generally no more than 2,800 Indians can receive permanent residence in the EB-3 category each year. Indians averaged fewer than 3,000 green cards annually in that category in 2009 and 2010, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
If, as discussed above, the potential backlog in the EB-3 category is 210,000 for Indians (principals and dependents) and 3,000 or fewer Indians can receive permanent residence in the category each year, then that means the theoretical wait for Indian professionals sponsored today in EB-3 is 70 years.
Nobody Will Wait 70 Years for a Green Card
In practice, no one can wait 70 years for a green card. That holds important implications for whether highly skilled foreign nationals from India will be able to stay long-term in the United States without changes to the law. Foreign nationals would have concerns that children included as part of the immigration petition would “age out” and not be allowed to become permanent residents. Moreover, generally speaking, spouses are not able to work. The numbers provide an illustration of how long the waits for permanent residence could be absent action by Congress. Eliminating the per country limit for employment-based green cards and raising the quotas for skilled immigrants will have a significant impact on reducing the time Indians wait for green cards.