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WASHINGTON : The government is set to let as many as 80,000 employment-based green cards expire Friday, leaving foreign workers waiting for a permanent resolution to their immigration limbo.

Because of a quirk in immigration law, the government began its fiscal year last October with 120,000 more green cards than the 140,000 it typically hands out, a prospect that promised to put a meaningful dent in the backlog of eligible applicants.

But immigration authorities have been unable to process the windfall, exacerbating frustration felt by many of the 1.2 million immigrants—most of them from India and working in the tech sector—who have been sponsored for green cards and will continue working on temporary visas that limit their ability to change jobs or travel. Congress is considering several possible legislative solutions, but they have become ensnared in broader debates on immigration occurring in both parties.

“I feel helpless," said Kailash Pawar, a pediatric neurologist in Kansas City who moved to the U.S. for his medical residency and first applied for a green card in 2013.

This August, Dr. Pawar’s number came up and he filed the final steps of his application, but he still hasn’t received a green card—and is unlikely to do so given the end of the fiscal year today, which resets the clock. He’s afraid that, should so many slots go unused this fiscal year, he might not be eligible next year.

The issue arose during the last fiscal year due to the pandemic, when the U.S. closed its consulates abroad, resulting in far fewer green cards than normal being issued to family members of U.S. citizens. Any family-based green cards not used in one year switch over to the employment-based category the following year. But if those green cards also go unused, they effectively disappear from the system when the new fiscal year begins Friday morning.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency primarily in charge of legal immigration, hasn’t had the capacity to process all of them, according to agency officials. One official said earlier this week the agency had projected last week it would waste between 75,000 and 80,000 green cards, but now hopes the final number will be fewer.

The agency has been plagued with money problems and reduced processing capacity since the start of the pandemic, and only began processing green cards at a faster pace this summer. The official said the Biden administration, which made faster processing a priority, encouraged immigration officers to skip duplicative steps—including waving a fingerprint requirement if the immigrant had submitted fingerprints with a previous visa application.

The slow processing of green cards has become a priority for Silicon Valley companies, which employ many of the immigrants waiting for their green cards and feel pressure from their employees to advocate on their behalf.

“This is a self-inflicted wound, one that makes it less likely that talented people will choose to invest their skills and their futures in America," Jack Chen, associate general counsel at Microsoft Corp., said.

Matthew Bourke, a USCIS spokesman, said the agency is “reviewing all policies, operational procedures and options under the law" that would allow it to issue more green cards by today, the last day of the government’s fiscal year, or hold unused slots over to the next year. Mr. Bourke also noted that, despite the unused green cards, the agency had processed more this year than ever in its history.

Similar bottlenecks in the system also resulted in about 150,000 family-based green cards going unused this year. Most of those applicants live abroad and were prevented from even applying for visas to the U.S. because of a patchwork of consulate closures and Covid-based travel bans.

Democrats had hoped to help the backlogged immigrants by including in their $3.5 trillion climate and social-policy budget package provisions that would recapture unused green cards over the past three decades and allow immigrants to pay extra fees to move ahead in line.

The provision recapturing unused visas would benefit both the employment-based and family-based green card categories, and congressional aides estimate it would result in hundreds of thousands of new green cards becoming available.

The provisions passed through the House Judiciary committee earlier this month, but their fate is more uncertain in the Senate, where it is looking increasingly unlikely that Democrats will be able to use the budget package to provide a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

Congressional aides believe the provisions helping those in the green-card backlog are more likely to survive the Senate Parliamentarian, who said such measures are “distinguishable" from the path to citizenship she ruled out in an opinion earlier this month.

On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), an influential Senate voice on immigration issues, suggested he was unwilling to endorse measures to help legal immigrants working in high-skill professions if measures to help immigrants with no path to legalization are excluded.

“I think that other immigration things, especially for businesses, that’s not going to happen if we’re not going to have any pathway to some form of status adjustment for the undocumented. I won’t support that," he said.

Supporters of changing the green-card policy are dismayed by that argument.

“It’s an unfortunate way of thinking, because every immigrant here is a human being, and here are human beings who they can help," said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney and a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.).

Meanwhile, Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) plans to bring up a bill next week that would recapture any unused employment-based green cards over the past two years, a number he estimates would recover about 92,000 slots.

Mr. Tillis plans to bring up the bill using a measure known as unanimous consent, but already two Republican senators—Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas—have indicated they would object.

Some Republicans prefer different methods to reduce the backlog. Mr. Lee has sponsored a bill that would lift the per-country caps that enable 7% of green cards a year to go to Indian immigrants—at least until there are no more qualified applicants from other countries. That solution wouldn’t increase the overall number of green cards awarded in any given year, and some Republicans oppose such an increase.

Without a change in existing law, the backlog could grow next year. The government estimates that about 150,000 family-based green cards weren’t awarded this year, and they will all switch over to the employment-based green card category beginning Friday.

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