Highly skilled Indians applying for permanent residency in the US could have to wait up to 70 years for a green card, two new reports published on Wednesday found.
The studies, published by the Virginia-based immigration think tank National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP), were the first of their kind to calculate wait times by country of origin and visa category.
The findings of the studies, first reported by Indo-Asian News Service agency, were heavily referenced by legislators, academics and private sector leaders hoping to influence the immigration debate in a hearing before the US House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee debating how to retain highly skilled foreign nationals on Wednesday.
The reports attribute the long wait times for green cards (up to 70 years for Indians, and two decades for the Chinese under the E-B3 category of green card allotted to foreign professionals who are university graduates) to quotas limiting the number of green cards issued to only 140,000 per year. Also, current immigration laws (dating back to the 1980s) restricted the number of green cards available to applicants from a particular country to only 7% of the total—regardless of the education level, skill quality or volume of the applicant pool. Practically speaking, this means that fewer than 3,000 Indians are granted E-B3 green cards each year, with an estimated backlog of 210,000 for India alone.
The findings emphasize how such restrictions can potentially damage American competitiveness, as one-half to two-thirds of the graduates from American universities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are foreign nationals.
“Failure to retain these talented individuals in the US means they will go to work for international companies in other countries, or US businesses will need to place them abroad, pushing more work outside the US,” said Stuart Anderson, the executive director for NFAP, and the author of the reports, in a press release accompanying them. “An ability to offer a prized employee a realistic chance of staying in America as a permanent resident can be crucial to retaining that individual.”
As a solution, the report recommends a change in policy to eliminate the per country limit, which would considerably reduce the wait time faced by aspiring green card holders: In the case of Indians, from 70 to 12 years, according to the report.
“It is not in our interests to have the most important characteristic of an immigrant to America be the ability to wait a long time,” said Anderson in the press release. “Absent action by Congress, the situation will grow worse, creating great hardship and weakening the competitiveness of US companies.”
The publication of the report coincided with a hearing on the same topic before the US House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee on immigration, also on Wednesday. Two Bills that would reduce barriers to entry for foreign-born immigrant workers have been introduced in the US House of Representatives already this year—the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act and the IDEA Act of 2011.
In her testimony at the immigration hearing, Darla Whitaker, senior vice-president for worldwide human resources for Texas Instruments (TI), spoke on how a dearth of green card opportunities harmed her company’s ability to retain foreign talent, directly affecting the company’s profit.
“The current system in which they must first obtain an H-1B visa and then wait for years—sometimes up to a decade for a green card—is frustrating for them, limits employer flexibility, and diminishes productivity,” she said. “While our employees wait, and wait, for their green cards, their ability to be promoted or change jobs is limited.”
She further argued that per-country quotas affected the ability to maintain talent and therefore innovate, hurting industry.
“A Bill to increase the number of green cards available to graduates of US universities holding advanced degrees in STEM would alleviate the long backlogs our innovators are stuck in, and would allow TI and the semiconductor industry to recruit and retain top talent more” competitively, she said.
Judiciary committee chairman Lamar Smith criticized current immigration policies on the ground that they worked against America’s interests. “We have the most generous level of legal immigration in the world. Yet we select only 5% of our immigrants based on the skills and education they bring to America,” he said.
“Why don’t we simply offer a green card to any foreign student who graduates from a US university with an advanced STEM degree and wants to stay in the US? After all, why would we want to educate scientists and engineers here and then send them home to work for our competitors?”