Green card overhaul

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on July 14, 2019

Millions of Indian H-1B workers stand to gain

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill this week which could dramatically reduce the current wait time of Indian H-1B technical workers seeking green cards. The measure is expected to be approved by the Senate, and President Trump may sign it into law. The change would be phased in over three years.

The US is the most generous western country accepting nearly 1.2 million permanent residents each year. Of these, nearly 800,000 green cards are awarded based on family ties, such as a US citizen sponsoring a sibling.

Only about 140,000 visas are given out to the so-called employment-based (EB) categories, and even these are tightly controlled based on which skills bucket an applicant falls under. People with exceptional academic abilities, like professors and researchers (EB1); professional managers, lawyers, and doctors, with advanced degrees (EB2); the largest cohort are the tech workers with a Bachelor’s degree (EB3); special immigrants, such as religious workers (EB4); and people who invest in American projects (EB5).

Two constraints are placed on the disbursement of these 140,000 EB visas. The first imposes a country-cap limited to 7 per cent of the total, so India is awarded only 9,800 visas for all EB visa categories combined. Iceland, which has a total population of just 350,000 people, also is awarded only 9,800 visas — although most Icelanders never immigrate to the US. Second, the 9,800 visas which each country gets is shared with spouses and children — which means that an Indian H-1B worker with a spouse and two children will mop up four green cards in one scoop.

With the explosion of Indian H-1Bs during the last 20 years, some estimates say that it may take 50-plus years for them to receive their green cards. During this wait, life clearly cannot stop. So, they get married, buy homes, and even send their children to college, all the while under a non-immigrant H-1B visa which has to be renewed each year once the six-year life of an H-1B visa expires. H-1B visa-holders are unable to start their own businesses or freely travel abroad. Spouses are unable to work unless granted H-1B dependent employment authorisation, a policy which itself is currently under scrutiny. Children attending college do so as international students although they may have spent most of their childhood in the US and their parents paid US taxes.

The bill passed this week eliminated the 7 per cent country cap for EB visas. Theoretically, all 140,000 EB visas could now become available to Indians (from just 9,800 visas today), dramatically reducing the green card wait time, although, in practice, Indians would be competing with other nationalities, such as the Chinese, for EB-5 investor visas. The bill does not increase the number of overall green cards, which stays pegged at 1.2 million.

The bill also does not embrace policies favoured by President Trump who wants to increase the number of EB visas from 140,000 to 665,000, awarding them largely on a points-based merit system in which applicants would earn points based on age, educational background, and job offers. He would keep the total number of green cards at 1.2 million, in effect taking visas away from family beneficiaries. Such a law would be a dream for Indian tech workers but will remain so because it has little chance of passage.

In the interim, the House bill is a remarkable boon for millions of H-1B workers who can now see a light at the proverbial end of the green card tunnel.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, US

Published on July 14, 2019

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