On December 17, 2022, a group of Indian tech workers staged a protest in Silicon Valley calling for reforms to the U.S. legal-immigration system. Some had already waited for decades to obtain permanent residency (a green card). One said, “What we are fighting for is basic equality. . . . Treat us based on what skills we bring to this nation and not necessarily based on where we were born.” But their protest has caught little media attention. Meantime, President Biden’s visit to a highly sanitized portion of the U.S.-Mexico border has received wall-to-wall coverage. The mismatch in attention suggests a misalignment of priorities.
I understand these Indian tech workers’ frustration because I was once in their shoes. I came to the United States on a student visa in 1996, and my quest for U.S. citizenship was a 17-year-long march. The excruciatingly long wait these workers and I have experienced is a product of American immigration law.
Legal immigration in the U.S. proceeds according to a quota-driven system that prioritizes family connections of current residents over other considerations. The U.S. admits about 1.1 million legal immigrants annually, most given entry based on family relations in the U.S. A citizen or green-card holder can sponsor a spouse, parents, and minor children through family-reunion-based legal immigration (they can theoretically sponsor other relatives, too, though such sponsorships are subject to limits). For those with no family members in the U.S., often including highly educated workers from Asia, their best and often only hope of becoming Americans is through employment-based immigration. But current law allocates only 140,000 employment-based visas annually, and the demand for such a visa far exceeds the limited supply.
Further, current U.S. immigration law sets a per-country limit of 7 percent of the family-based and employment-based categories, no matter the size of the population of the country of origin. (The limit is flexible: if some countries don’t reach it, more visas will be made available to people from other countries.) For example, the annual visa quotas for family-based and employment-based visas are 226,000 (de facto) and 140,000, respectively. The per-country limit will be a fraction of that number, further divided into a family-based limit and a smaller employment-based limit.
Despite lawmakers’ past hopes of diversifying the immigrant pool, the top immigrant-sending countries haven’t changed much since the law was enacted. For example, in 2012, Mexico, India, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam were the top five countries of origin for immigrants to the U.S. In 2020, the top five were Mexico, India, China, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam. Such constancy is not surprising, given that immigration is a voluntary act. Moreover, the limited supply of employment-based visas and the per-country limits skew the competition for visas. The four countries with the most extended wait times for family- and employer-sponsored visa applications are Mexico, India, China, and the Philippines.
Such long delays have hindered the United States’ ability to retain top talent. One study found that delays in obtaining green cards could explain the declines in the stay rates of Chinese and Indian Ph.D. students from U.S. STEM programs. “The stay rate of Chinese graduates [of U.S. universities] declines by 2.1 percentage points for each year of delay, while Indian graduates facing delays of at least 5 ½ years have a stay rate that is 10.6 percentage points lower.” High-skilled workers who stand to earn substantial incomes and contribute to the nation’s economy are shut out.
President Biden has announced an immigration plan, which includes allowing 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela to enter the U.S. by air monthly. These migrants can legally work and live in the U.S., while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. By the stroke of his pen, Biden will grant legal status to 360,000 would-be migrants from these four countries annually. But his action risks worsening the crisis at the southern border, encouraging migrants from other countries to cross illegally.
Meantime, legal immigrants—including many potential difference-makers for the American economy—will face even longer delays. Immigration agencies and courts will have to devote time and resources to deal with the additional influx of asylum cases resulting from the administration’s new immigration plan. Why should anyone strive to become a legal immigrant in the U.S. when the nation’s leadership signals that there is no reward for following the law—and no punishment for breaking it?
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