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Congress, leave no H-1Bs behind

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Acrimonious negotiations over an immigration reform deal have been playing out publicly over the past few months, even leading to brief government shutdowns. Contentious debates have raged around DACA, stronger border security, and changes to diversity lottery visas and family immigration categories — with no solutions in sight. But one problem, that of major backlogs in our employment-based immigration system, has an easy fix and surprisingly has generated broad bipartisan support but is being stalled by one office for no apparent reason.

The backlog issue stems from arbitrary and discriminatory limitations placed on the number of green cards allocated to employment-based immigrants based on their country of origin. These caps have created immense backlogs on H-1B visas for applicants. Immigrants, their spouses and children, from countries such as India, have been disproportionately impacted by these discriminatory rules. For example, only 7 percent of 140,000 employment-based green cards distributed yearly are available to Indian immigrants, despite their accounting for 70 percent of the 85,000 annual H-1B visas.

{mosads}Similar to other immigrants, those on employment visas have made tremendous contributions to our economy and society. They have supported job creation and economic investment, and spurred unprecedented innovation, allowing us to retain a global competitive advantage in information technology and other sectors.


According to GC Reforms, an immigration advocacy organization, an estimated 44 percent of startups have had at least one immigrant co-founder, with 24 percent of patents having been awarded to skilled immigrants.

The National Foundation for American Policy further asserts that, overall, “immigrants have started more than half (44 of 87) of America’s startup companies valued at $1 billion dollars or more and are key members of management or product development teams in over 70 percent (62 of 87) of these companies.” Moreover, companies founded by immigrants are worth an estimated $168 billion and have generated thousands of U.S. jobs.

In addition, GC Reforms finds that immigrants on H-1B visas have made contributions of approximately $220 billion to the U.S. GDP and $72 billion in taxes over the past 10 years. They have contributed $50 billion in investments such as stocks and 401(k)plans, and $45 billion into real estate.

Despite these benefits, because of the cap of 7 percent per country of origin, more than 300,000 skilled immigrants, many from India, are facing wait times of more than 25 years to receive a green card solely because of a broken system.

This unfathomable wait time often has tragic consequences.

In one such case, an Indian immigrant in Dallas, Texas, who has been waiting years for a green card, recently had his H-1B visa extended but his autistic daughter, who just turned 21, has “aged out” and no longer is eligible for an H-4 dependent visa. With the girl’s visa rejected, her parents are desperately trying to find a way to keep their family together in the United States.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to address the backlog that exists: H.R.392, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017 (and its Senate companion, S.281).

Introduced last year, the House bill would make our employment-based immigration system more equitable and fair, while clearing the green card backlog for immigrants on H-1B visas and their families. Notably, it would not increase the total number of green cards available to employment-based immigrants, but would simply remove arbitrary per-country caps. This would then allow green cards to be redistributed based on application date, instead of country of origin.

Most importantly, H.R.392 is a bipartisan bill with 317 co-sponsors and is supported by the majority of members in the Republican Conference and Democratic Caucus. Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Ken Yoder (R-Kan.) recently spearheaded a support letter with 77 Republican and Democratic signatories, urging Senate and House leadership to pass the bill.

Despite overwhelming bipartisan support, however, the bill is being held up in the House Judiciary Committee. Failure to move H.R.392 to the floor for a vote, where it likely would pass, or to clear the backlog and reduce wait times through other means will have detrimental long-term consequences for our economy and society.

For one, it will lead to a brain drain of  skilled workers who are unable to obtain green cards and are vulnerable to having their H-1B visa extensions denied — as was recently proposed by the Trump administration before it shortly reversed course.

It will also curtail our ability to attract new talent from around the world, many of whom increasingly will choose to migrate to other countries with more equitable policies, such as Canada, Australia and Singapore, rather than endure prolonged uncertainty and discriminatory U.S. rules.  

And finally, left unaddressed, the backlog will disrupt families and uproot thousands of children from the only country they know. For example, 40,000 children on H-4 dependent visas are at risk of “aging-out” and losing their legal status if their H-1B parents do not receive green cards, while approximately 150,000 children who are U.S.-born citizens similarly would have to leave with their parents, absent a green card.

Much of this is avoidable with commonsense reform, and H.R.392 is an important part of that.

While there are certainly many other critical outstanding immigration issues to address, why not at least solve one aspect of the system that most Democrats and Republicans can agree on?

Samir Kalra is a managing director at the Hindu American Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington. He leads the foundation’s human rights and policy advocacy efforts and has spoken extensively at Congressional briefings. He previously served on the Immigration Advisory Committee for Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) in the Bay Area.

Tags Diversity Immigrant Visa Eric Swalwell H-1B visa Immigration to the United States Tulsi Gabbard Visa policy of the United States

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