WASHINGTON — An estimated 800,000 immigrants who are working legally in the United States are waiting for a green card — an unprecedented backlog in employment-based immigration that has fueled a bitter policy debate but has been largely overshadowed by a border wall and the Trump administration’s focus on migrant crossings from Mexico.
Most of those waiting for employment-based green cards that would allow them to stay in the United States permanently are Indian nationals. And the backlog among this group is so acute that an Indian national who applies for a green card now can expect to wait up to 50 years to get one.
The wait is largely the result of an annual quota unchanged since 1990, and per-country limits enacted decades before the tech boom made India the top source of employment-based green card-seekers.
The backlog has led to competing bills in Congress and has pitted immigrants against immigrants, setting off accusations of racism and greed and exposing a deep cynicism about the prospects for any kind of immigration reform in a polarized nation.
The debate centers on the potential benefits of a quick fix to alleviate the wait times for those already in the backlog versus a broader immigration overhaul that could allow more workers to seek permanent residency, address country quotas and expand the number of available green cards.
Among those pushing for a quick resolution are business leaders, who worry that a congressional stalemate — doing nothing at all — could push Indian workers out of the United States and cause others to seek easier paths to citizenship in other countries.
“What does that ultimately mean? Valuable, skilled people decide they should leave because they’re never going to get what they had hoped for,” said Bruce Morrison, a lobbyist and immigration lawyer who wrote the last bill that increased the number of employment green cards in 1990, when he was in Congress representing Connecticut.
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“And valuable people don’t come because they figure our system is so broken they can’t see their way through it. Therefore, other countries bidding for these skilled workers get those workers.
“Companies in America move jobs abroad to employ those skills elsewhere. And American prosperity suffers.”
The crisis of employment-based green cards burst into the open in October after a narrow bill to address the issue nearly passed the Senate in a unanimous consent motion, after sailing easily through the House.
But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and other critics of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which aims to provide relief to Indians by eliminating the country quotas for employment green cards, said it isn’t so simple.
Because the bill did not increase the overall number of green cards, they argue the backlog will worsen, waiting times for all nationalities will extend to 17 years, and a trickle-down effect will make it difficult for working professionals from anywhere other than India to come to the United States.
Durbin and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., each proposed their own, more comprehensive bills.
On Tuesday, Capitol Hill aides said there was possible deal under discussion, but it was unclear whether it would materialize, and how soon.