Highly Skilled May Wait Less for Visas

On Tuesday, November 29, 2011, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would eliminate the limits on the number of green cards based on employment that is available annually to each country. The “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act” (HR 3012) passed easily with a vote of 389 to 15 and will mostly benefit highly skilled immigrants from India and China. It would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate the per-country numerical limitation for employment-based immigrants and increase the per-country numerical limitation for family-sponsored immigrants.

The bill tweaks the visa system to allow more highly skilled immigrants from India and China to become legal permanent residents. Because demand is highest for advanced degree holders from India and China, the per-country cap has meant delays for residents of those two nations of at least four years for a green card. By contrast, people from most other countries with advanced degrees have little wait.

Currently, 140,000 green cards are available each year for immigrants based on their job skills, with each country limited to 7 percent of those visas. Under the bill, after a three year transition, all employment based green cards will be issued on a first-come-first-served basis, with no country limits.

The legislation also includes a measure that will more than double the green cards based on family ties available for Mexicans and Filipinos, the two national groups facing the longest backlogs on the family side of the system. It raises the country limit of 226,000 family green cards each year to 15 percent from the current 7 percent.

The main beneficiaries of the bill will be individuals who are highly skilled immigrants from India and China, including many with master’s degrees and doctorates in science and engineering. These countries send many people to work here who have advanced science and technology skills. In most cases, individuals from these two countries will receive their permanent green cards quicker, having worked in the US for years on a temporary visa, such as H-1B, L-1, etc.

Backers of the bill estimate that green cards for STEM grads will lead to about 50,000 new green cards a year, about half for the STEM graduate and the remainder for family members. Opponents say that estimate may under count the actual impact.

Currently, Senator Grassley has put a hold on the bill in the Senate and so, it remains to be seen what the final outcome will be. However, we remain very optimistic.