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Thousands of Worker Green Cards Went Unused Amid Pandemic Delays

April 14, 2022, 5:05 PM

About 66,500 employment-based green cards went unused in fiscal 2021 as immigration agencies struggled with the impact of the pandemic and more stringent Trump-era policies.

Roughly 262,000 employment-based green cards were available under the fiscal year limit, according to data published this week by the State Department. The agency said Covid-19 restrictions and staffing challenges reduced the capacity of embassies and consulates to process applications in the last fiscal year. A USCIS spokesman said employment-based green card applications are one of the agency’s highest priority workloads.

Another 141,000 family-based green cards went unused out of a total 226,000 available, according to the data. While the expired employment-based green cards are lost, the unused family-based numbers roll over into the employment-based category for the following fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The State Department estimates that about 280,000 employment-based green cards will be available in fiscal 2022, including the normal 140,000 limit in addition to unused numbers from the family-based category.

Green cards allow non-citizens to live and work permanently in the U.S. They also give individuals on guest worker visas the ability to change employers. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, processes most employment-based green cards, while the State Department is primarily responsible for processing family-based green cards.

Lawmakers in recent months have fallen short in efforts to pass measures that would restore unused green cards from previous fiscal years. Legislation recently advanced by the House Judiciary Committee would lift per-country caps on employment-based green cards that fuel backlogs for certain countries. That bill (H.R. 3648) also would give applicants stuck in backlogs expanded travel rights and more flexibility to change jobs.

USCIS has shifted employment-based applications between field offices and service centers to match workloads with available resources, reused biometric information when possible, and waived some interview requirements using risk-based determinations. Visa processing in fiscal 2021 was slowed by a “frontlog” of about a million unopened applications at USCIS as of January 2021, which was cleared by July 2021.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Kreighbaum in Washington at akreighbaum@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com; Genevieve Douglas at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com