The Biden administration has acknowledged that in the last fiscal year the U.S. failed to issue roughly 80,000 green cards that should have been given to legal immigrant workers. The shortfall adds to a backlog of more than 1 million people waiting to receive employment-based visas. Congress should ensure those green cards are used — and then set about fixing a system that pointlessly burdens skilled immigrants and the businesses that employ them.

Each year, the U.S. issues a maximum of 140,000 green cards to immigrants sponsored by employers and approved for permanent residence — a number frozen since 1990. Another 226,000 “family preference” green cards are reserved for family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In years when the ceiling for family preference visas is not reached, due to low demand or processing delays or both, the unused visas move to the employment-based category, but have to be awarded by the end of the next fiscal year.

The closure of immigration offices during the pandemic, along with restrictions imposed by the Trump administration, caused the number of family-preference green cards to plunge in 2020. As a result, 122,000 additional employment-based green cards became available. That should have been good news for workers in the green-card queue, some of whom have lived in the U.S. legally for decades. But U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was unprepared to handle the surge in demand. Despite a late push by the Biden administration, the agency fell well short of awarding the full quota by the Sept. 30 deadline. If Congress doesn’t act, those unused green cards will be lost for good.

This compounds the failure of a system that, even when running as intended, leaves hundreds of thousands of skilled and legally employed workers in limbo. On average, highly educated immigrants who’ve qualified for green cards can expect to wait 16 years before actually receiving them. Because of limits on the number issued to any single country, many immigrants from India who’ve been approved for permanent residence in the U.S. won’t ever get a card.

Legislation introduced by two Republicans, Senator Thom Tillis and Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks, would authorize the government to “recapture” the expired visas and roll them into next year. The bill has so far failed to gain backing from congressional Democrats, who are seeking to include broader immigration reforms in their $3.5 trillion spending package. At least one lawmaker, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, has suggested he’d oppose issuing more employment-based green cards unless Congress also acts to protect the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

This is wrong. Though Democrats are right to push for comprehensive immigration reform, it makes no sense to leave this immediate problem unresolved. Democratic leaders should promptly embrace Tillis’s bill to let USCIS retain unused employment-based green cards and issue them next year. Congress should also provide additional resources to deal with staff shortages. Meanwhile, the Biden administration should streamline an absurdly complex approval process. This means, among other things, upgrading technology to allow applicants to file paperwork online.

Eliminating the visa backlog will eventually require lifting the arbitrary cap on the number of cards issued each year. Broader immigration reform is needed too. Those are bigger challenges — but an easy first step is to deliver the cards the government is already authorized to award. There’s no excuse for failing to do even that.


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