Recapturing green cards: Immigration is America’s advantage over China

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Immigrants from 25 countries participate in a naturalization ceremony in Daley Plaza on September 16, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. 

Every year, the U.S. sets aside permanent resident cards, known as “green cards,” including 226,000 family-preference green cards for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, 140,000 employment-based green cards and 50,000 diversity green cards. 

But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, plus the Trump administration’s gutting of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, have slowed the processing of all green cards. And if they aren’t processed by the end of a fiscal year, these green cards — typically, tens of thousands of them — go unused and disappear. 

This bureaucratic vanishing act only exacerbates the bloated green card application backlog of around 5 million and counting. That backlog is made worse by per-country caps, which create decades-long waits for immigrants from countries such as India and China. 

Our nation’s immigration “system” — system being an overstatement here — does not meet the 21st-century opportunities and threats we face today.  

But now, Congress’ budget reconciliation negotiation presents an opportunity to recapture unused green cards and begin to bring our immigration system into the 2000s.  

President Joe Biden’s latest reconciliation plan includes a proposal that would recapture hundreds of thousands of green cards that have gone unused over several decades and make “them available for immigrants who are currently caught up in the backlog.” 

It’s a smart approach.  

While the Senate parliamentarian, a nonpartisan adviser on procedural issues, has not ruled on whether green card recapture can be included in a budget reconciliation measure, there’s precedent: A similar measure was passed by a Republican-controlled Senate in 2005. Although the provisions were not included in the final budget, no challenge was raised on procedural grounds. 

The New York Times reported that at the time, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) supported “recapturing unused visas for high-skilled workers in a reconciliation package as a way to ‘keep jobs here in America, rather than export them to places like India and China.’” 

In 2021, this is no longer just a matter of keeping jobs in the U.S. 

In a paper published in September, our partners at the Council on National Security and Immigration (CNSI) point out that China may overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in part because “the tech industry in China has grown exponentially in the last few years” — and that “China’s pattern of malicious cyber activity poses a major threat to U.S. economic and national security.” 

China lacks the necessary technology to get ahead of Taiwan and South Korea, which are Nos. 1 and 2 in computer chip manufacturing. But if China were to make good on threats to fully control Taiwan via military action, the math of chip manufacturing would change overnight and the U.S., if not the world, would become massively dependent on China.  

The fact is that from the perspectives of manufacturing capacity and talent, we need to make up ground.  

On the manufacturing side, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 in June. According to the CNSI, the bill would authorize more than $100 billion over five years “to discover, build, and enhance tomorrow’s most vital technologies — from artificial intelligence to computer chips, to the lithium batteries used in smart devices and electric vehicles — right here in the United States.” The bill sits in the House, waiting for action.  

But even if the bill becomes law, the U.S. will not have enough workers with science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees to execute its provisions. Sure, we have the resources to build new plants. But this is not an “if you build it, the engineers will come” situation. 

The number of foreign-born STEM workers increased from 509,000 in 1990 to almost 2 million in 2015. Immigrants currently make up 26 percent of the STEM workforce in the United States. 

So, unless we magically produce STEM graduates or address our green card backlog, we will face an even greater shortage of talent as these plants come online. 

In the U.S., one is hard-pressed to develop and sustain political attention to such an existential challenge to our competitiveness, much less our security. Not so much in China, where  “High-level officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are painfully aware of their high-skilled exodus problem and the labor shortage that it creates,” according to the CNSI report. “They have stressed that ‘the number of top talents lost in China ranks first in the world.’” 

Immigration is the United States’ competitive advantage over China and much of the world. Our failure to reform the system is weakening our hand.  

Plants take years to operationalize. Modernizing our immigration system so we maintain America’s dominance and outperform China can happen, practically speaking, overnight. 

Including a remedy for the green card backlog in budget reconciliation is an important step in strengthening our economy and our security. 

Ali Noorani is president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, author of the forthcoming book “Crossing Borders: The Reconciliation of a Nation of Immigrants,” and host of the podcast “Only in America.” 

Tags Ali Noorani green card Immigration Joe Biden John Cornyn permanent resident STEM

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