Access to employment-based green cards no longer would be determined by an applicant’s country of birth under a bill that passed the House July 10 on a vote of 365 to 65.

The measure easily cleared the two-thirds threshold needed to pass the bill.

The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act (H.R. 1044) is the latest incarnation of legislation that has been introduced in Congress multiple times but never enacted. Its future remains uncertain, as several senators on both sides of the aisle, including former co-sponsor Rand Paul (R-Ky.), already have placed holds on the Senate companion measure.

The bill would eliminate per-country caps on employment-based green cards, which have resulted in hundreds of thousands of immigrants—mostly from India and China—facing a decadeslong wait time to become lawful permanent residents. It also would raise the per-country limit on family-based visas from the current 7% to 15%.

The measure includes a transition period to allow immigrants from countries not currently oversubscribed to keep their place in line for a green card even if they would be pushed to the back by the cap removal.

H.R. 1044 is a “modest but important change to our immigration laws” to “alleviate hardships associated with lengthy visa backlogs” without increasing the total number of visas, chief sponsor Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said on the House floor July 10. The wait time for green cards, which can reach 70 years, “has become an emergency in some sectors” that necessitates quick action, she said.

Per-country caps and the resultant backlog are “depressing wages, hurting American workers, and hindering further economic growth,” said co-sponsor Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.). “Seventy-year backlogs are only going to dissuade talented individuals from coming to the United States,” he said.

Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, was the lone lawmaker speaking against the bill. “I agree with the concept,” and “there probably should not have been a cap from the onset,” he said.

But the bill language is “not ready for prime time,” Collins said. Instead, it should first go through committee and the markup process rather than going straight to the floor without amendments, he said.

Mixed Reviews

Despite its bipartisan appeal, the bill is opposed by groups that advocate for lower immigration levels, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies. It would reward companies that bring in large numbers of Indian workers on H-1B specialty occupation visas, who displace U.S.-born tech workers, they say.

“I think it’s a bad idea to scrap the per-country caps, at least independently of a major overhaul of the entire system,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for CIS. “It will reward this dysfunctional employment visa system, but also cut off the opportunity for green cards to people from the rest of the world, who tend to be more uniquely qualified than the folks who are waiting after having been contract H-1B workers.”

Vaughan said she doesn’t fault the workers who are in the green card backlog but rather employers that exploited them and led them to believe they could easily transition to a green card from an H-1B visa. “If we let these employers off the hook” by eliminating per-country caps, it just allows them to perpetuate the system, “which has been at great cost to many American workers,” she said.

The bill is backed by other groups, such as the pro-immigration advocacy group FWD.us and the Society for Human Resource Management, an association of HR professionals.

H.R. 1044 “puts talent and skills before beneficiaries’ country of birth,” said Rebecca Peters, director policy engagement at SHRM. “This is an important first step,” but “we need a lot of other reforms to modernize our workplace immigration system,” she said.

That includes increasing the number of visas available each year as well as making it easier for immigrant workers to change jobs while waiting for green cards to become available, Peters said.

Passing the bill will “build momentum to get support for the next step,” which is “improving access to talent waiting in the backlogs,” she said.

Nurses, H-1B Visas

S. 386, the Senate companion bill, has 34 bipartisan co-sponsors, but it also faces opposition from both sides of the aisle.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the primary sponsor of the Senate version, tried June 27 to get the bill passed on the floor by unanimous consent. But Paul, who wants the bill to include a provision for immigrant nurses, objected to moving the bill forward, stalling its progress.

The nurses, most of whom hail from the Philippines, by some estimates could see a wait time of seven or eight years for green cards if per-country caps are eliminated. Unlike other professionals, nurses aren’t eligible for H-1B visas and therefore can’t work in the U.S. until their green cards come through.

Some Democrats also are concerned that the bill would just reallocate green cards without increasing the total number to accommodate all workers seeking one.

Advocates of the bill, including the skilled immigrant group Immigration Voice, believed that a deal between Lee and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to pair it with language that would increase Labor Department enforcement of the H-1B program would push it past the finish line. Grassley has expressed reservations about the legislation in the past, placing a hold on it the last time it passed the House in 2011.

He lifted the hold in 2012 after reaching a similar deal on H-1B language with Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), but the bill never made it to a vote.

A representative for the White House couldn’t be reached for comment on the bill.

Consensus Calendar

“I’m encouraged that the Senate is working on this important issue,” Lofgren said in a statement. She said her goal was to get the bill passed in the House, and afterward, “we will see where things stand.”

Lofgren last month asked to put the bill on the Consensus Calendar, which would require it to be considered on the floor without going through committee. The House bill doesn’t contain any H-1B language. In a tweet after the vote, Lofgren said, "#HR1044 has 200+ Dem and 100+ GOP cosponsors. If @POTUS is serious about merit-based legal immigration, he should help usher this bill into law.”

The bill had to maintain at least 290 co-sponsors for 25 legislative days to force a floor vote. The House took up the bill before the rule kicked in.