Democrats Push Fix for Green-Card Logjam in Social-Spending Bill – WSJ


Michelle Hackman

Green cards are typically awarded to immigrants who have family ties to the U.S. or are being sponsored by an employer. In many categories, such as for employment-based applicants, the overall number of green cards handed out per year is capped, and unused slots expire at the end of each year.

The U.S. also limits the number of green cards it hands out to nationals of each country, meaning applicants from countries with high levels of immigration to the U.S. may wait years to become a permanent resident. For Indians being sponsored by their employers, and family members of U.S. citizens from countries including Mexico, China and the Philippines, the wait can last decades.

In all, about four million people sponsored by a family member are in line for a green card that will allow them to come to the U.S., according to government figures. About 1.2 million more people who are sponsored by an employer—and typically already here on temporary visas—are also waiting for a green card.

The proposed measure would recover about 400,000 green cards, slightly over half for families and the rest for employers, according to a Congressional aide familiar with the estimate. Additional measures would allow immigrants to jump ahead in line for an extra fee.

Though Democrats agree the backlogs of green-card applicants are a major problem—in some cases driving people to immigrate illegally—solving the issue is now caught up in the broader party push to pass new protections for millions of immigrants in the country illegally, while Democrats control both chambers of Congress.

The measure still faces multiple hurdles.

Sunny Jha, an Ohio doctor who moved to the U.S. from India in 2008, has been waiting for his green card since 2014. Photo: Nichole Siesel

It must meet the strict criteria that govern the Senate budget process, and so allow Democrats to pass their package under the chamber’s so-called reconciliation procedure. That allows passage with just 51 votes rather than the usual 60, meaning they won’t need any Republican support. To qualify, a measure must have a significant impact on the federal budget.

Two previous immigration proposals weren’t allowed by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, but Congressional aides say they believe the green-card provision is likely to survive. Ms. MacDonough said such measures are “distinguishable” from the path to citizenship she ruled out in an opinion earlier this month. In 2005, the Senate used the reconciliation procedure to pass a bill to recycle unused visas, though the measure never passed the House.

Democrats were hoping to include the immigration measure in the broader bill to create a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, including Dreamers, who were brought to the country as children. If the parliamentarian allows the green-card provision but rejects the path to citizenship, Democrats will have to decide whether to move forward.

Some, including Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.), have suggested they would be loath to endorse proposals they believe would help business interests—such as making more employment-based green cards available—if they are unable to help immigrants without a permanent legal status. Immigrant communities form a core constituency for Democrats.

Supporters of addressing the green-card backlog are dissuaded by that argument.

“I’m always concerned about the immigration culture war swallowing up this issue,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D., Ill.), an advocate in Congress for Indians caught in the backlog of employment-based green cards. “To me, it’s just as important as the Dreamers and the essential workers and others are, because these are folks who add to the vibrancy and economic prosperity of America.”

On Tuesday, 95 organizations led by the American Immigration Lawyers Association wrote a letter to House and Senate Democrats urging them to move ahead with the green card measure no matter the outcome of the parliamentarian’s ruling on legal protections for other immigrants.

“The visa-related provisions…would be a significant victory for immigrant communities across the country and will help to ensure a more fair and efficient immigration system,” the groups wrote.

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Politicians from both parties have attempted to address the green-card backlog for years, though they generally disagree on how. Republicans have advocated a strategy of simply lifting the per-country cap on employment-based green cards. Currently, 140,000 such green cards are handed out each year, and under that scenario, they would go to applicants first in line, many of them Indian.

The need for the measure became more acute with the coronavirus pandemic, which shut immigration offices around the country and U.S. consulates around the world, halting visa and green-card processing. About 240,000 family-based green cards went unused in the past two years, and about 62,000 employment-based green cards went to waste in the past year when a U.S. immigration agency failed to process them in time.

One family that could benefit are Sunny Jha and his wife, Niharika Juwarkar, both doctors in northern Ohio who have a 6-year-old son who was born in the U.S. Dr. Jha moved to the U.S. from India in 2008 for his psychiatry residency before relocating to a small community hospital in Sandusky. He and his wife both applied for green cards in 2014.

While they wait, they remain in the U.S. on H-1B visas, which restrict their ability to change jobs and prevent them from leaving the country, for fear they could lose their place in line.

That hit hard in 2015, when Dr. Jha missed the funeral of his grandfather, with whom he had felt particularly close.

“Had I known that I would have been in such a backlog, I would have never come here,” he said.

Write to Michelle Hackman at

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