Congress Poised to Take Up Green Card Backlog Issue Again (1)

Feb. 7, 2019, 11:11 AMUpdated: Feb. 7, 2019, 5:28 PM

Congress is taking another go at legislation to reduce green card wait times for skilled Indian immigrants as the deadline nears to reach a broader immigration deal and avoid another government shutdown.

Reps. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Ken Buck (R-Colo.) plan to reintroduce legislation Feb. 7 that would eliminate per-country caps on employment-based green cards. The bill would reignite a measure that gained 329 co-sponsors in the House in the last Congress, but never came up for a vote.

The prior version of the bill was supported by tech giants such as Microsoft Corp., Amazon Inc., and IBM Corp., which have sponsored such workers for green cards.

Eliminating per-country caps would speed up the green card process for hundreds of thousands of Indian immigrant workers, who by some estimates could face a 151-year wait. The issue has taken on a renewed importance for those in the backlog, some of whom are seeing denials of the H-1B skilled guestworker visas they must renew repeatedly while waiting.

The Trump administration also plans to end a work permit program for the spouses of H-1B workers waiting for their green cards.

But there’s also some concern that removing per-country caps would introduce longer wait times for immigrant workers from other parts of the world, and could make it nearly impossible to get a green card without first obtaining an H-1B visa. That’s caused organizations such as the American Hospital Association and National Iranian American Council to oppose the measure.

The limited number of employment-based green cards also presents the potential for new backlogs to develop in the future, as the number of applicants continues to exceed the number of green cards available.

Part of Immigration Debate

The groups representing the immigrants in the backlog, however, are pushing hard. In addition to lobbying and phone campaigns, a rally is planned for Feb. 10 in front of the White House.

As Congress debates border security and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, we are “constantly reminding them that they need to look at that issue as well,” Harshit Chatur, vice president of media relations for Skilled Immigrants in America, told Bloomberg Law Feb. 6.

Immigrants in the backlog have “been here legally, they’ve been contributing,” and “these people are highly qualified as well,” Krishna Bansal, policy director for the Republican Hindu Coalition, told Bloomberg Law. But “we need help from both sides” of the political aisle as well as from Congress and the White House, said Bansal, one of the rally organizers.

Advocates hope to use Congress’ focus on the DACA program to point out the backlog’s effect on the children of immigrant workers. “The kids of legal immigrants are being deported at the same time” as those losing DACA status, Chatur said.

Children of green card applicants can become lawful permanent residents through their parents, but only if they’re unmarried and under age 21. Many Indian workers’ children “age out” of dependent status before their parents can obtain green cards.

Movement in Congress?

Lofgren and Buck’s proposal stands a better chance in Congress this time around. The two are the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, putting them in a position to get the bill moving.

Kevin Cramer (R), the junior senator from North Dakota, also signaled that he may co-sponsor a companion bill, expected to be introduced Feb. 7 by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Lee also sponsored a similar Senate bill in the 115th Congress.

Cramer’s guest for the State of the Union was Debjyoti Dwivedy, the senior vice president of Immigration Voice, another group advocating for immigrants in the green card backlog.

“The long wait for these valued neighbors and servants to get green cards is a disservice to them, their families, and the potential of the American economy,” Cramer said in a Feb. 5 Twitter post on his invitation to Dwivedy. “It is my hope we can finally pass a version of the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Workers Act this Congress,” he said.

The sticking point may be Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has blocked prior versions of the bill because of concerns about the H-1B program. “I’m pretty sure he’ll do it again” if the House passes the Lofgren-Buck bill, but addressing his concerns could make the legislation too unwieldy to reach consensus, Chatur said.

A representative for Grassley didn’t respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment.

An alternative would be a bill to allow immigrants to apply for green cards once their employers’ petitions have been approved, rather than the current system of having to wait until one is actually available.

That’s a “minor, technical” change to the law that would allow immigrants and their families to apply for work permits while they wait for their green cards, Chatur said. That would also do away with the other issues associated with the backlog, such as children aging out, spouses being able to work, and H-1B visas being denied, he said.

“These people are genuine” and “have really worked very hard,” said Jyotsna Sharma, an activist and host at New Jersey-based Mana TV. “They’re not doing anything wrong.”

(Story updated to include information on the Senate companion bill.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at lfrancis@bloomberglaw.com

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