Suppose that James and Arvind are both studying in the U.S. Like many international students, they want to eventually settle down in America. They are similarly qualified and both working on master’s degrees in electrical engineering. There is one crucial difference between them, however. While James was born in St. Lucia, a tiny country in the Caribbean, Arvind was born in India.

Now, this difference seems irrelevant and hardly worth bringing up in the context of immigration policy. Whether or not such individuals get to remain in the U.S. should plausibly depend on things like: what their qualifications are, how long they have resided in the country, what the demand is for workers with their skills, and whether or not either of them has a criminal record. The country of birth seems irrelevant.


Yet, when it comes to the American immigration system, the difference in their places of birth becomes of paramount importance. Suppose that both James and Arvind get offered jobs at the same company – say, Intel. So long as Intel is willing to sponsor him, James can expect to get his permanent residency status approved in a few months, whereas Arvind will have to wait for around 8 years!

This delay will have enormous consequences for Arvind – while he is waiting for his “green card,” he will have to remain in the U.S. through a work visa program, known as the H1-B. Since the H1-B only lasts for 3 years, however, it will have to be periodically renewed, and each application for the visa will cost thousands of dollars. Moreover, The H1-B works via a lottery system – with roughly a 1 in 2 chance of success – so Arvind may well not get his visa. And if that happens, he will have to leave the country. Additionally, since the H1-B is specifically a work visa, Arvind also cannot remain in the U.S. if he is laid off from Intel, unless he can immediately start at a different job.

What lies behind this differential and deeply unjust treatment is the country-based quota system employed by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). According to USCIS rules, no more than 7 percent of the total number of visas in a particular category may be granted to persons from any given country of origin. This creates an enormous backlog because many prospective immigrants to the U.S. seeking employment-based green cards originate, unsurprisingly, from certain large countries – particularly China and India.

This aspect of immigration law is problematic for several reasons. First, it seems unreasonable that St. Lucia, a country with a population of just under 200,000, should get the same maximum quota as China or India, which both have populations of over a billion people. China and India are “countries” only because of contingent geopolitical and historical factors – in reality, they are more akin to continents. Several states in India, for example, have bigger populations than the whole of France. Moreover, China and India both exhibit remarkable linguistic and ethnic diversity – so if the idea behind the quota system is to promote diversity among the immigrant population, then assigning quotas to countries seems ham-handed.

Second, the fact that the quotas specifically apply to country of birth renders the system further unfair and outdated. In today’s increasingly globalized world, many people spend most of their lives in countries other than the one in which they were born. Thus, in our example, Arvind may well have grown up in St. Lucia from a young age. He may even be a citizen of St. Lucia, and identify culturally with residents of the country. Yet, in the eyes of USCIS, he is to be considered Indian for the purposes of determining “country of origin.”

Third, the law is counterproductive even from the perspective of the interests of American citizens. Given the long delays and sheer luck involved in the green card process for people like Arvind, many otherwise talented foreigners are deterred from coming to America, and take their skills to Canada, England, or Australia instead. Further, since the H1-B lottery is determined entirely by luck, the U.S. in effect turns away many extremely talented individuals who would remain in the country if given a chance, and contribute significantly to its economic and scientific progress.

What I have said so far is fairly uncontroversial and seems like it would be met with widespread agreement. So why is the law still on the books? Why hasn’t Congress been able to replace the law with something less unfair to would-be immigrants, and more beneficial to the interests of the American people?

The obstacle facing progress here is that many politicians in the Senate, as well as President Obama, seem to be unwilling to reform parts of the immigration system bit by bit – preferring rather to achieve “comprehensive” immigration reform. Since such reform may not be imminent, the status quo with regards to the quotas is likely to remain for some time to come.

I’m sure that this delay in favor of comprehensive reform serves many political goals. Nonetheless, it seems that the right thing to do is to make progress on issues that involve patent injustice and that both sides of the aisle can agree on. It is unfair that people like Arvind must wait for almost a decade to become residents while the politicians take their time to strike a deal.

Joshi is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, in the Department of Philosophy.