With this immigration fix, employers can hire the workers they need

A doctor from India came to the U.S. in 2006, completed an internal medicine residency in New York, and is now working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia. He has risked his own life to save hundreds of lives over the past two years — yet he remains stuck on a temporary visa, waiting to receive a green card in the country he calls home. This temporary status has caused uncertainty for him and his family and prevents him from working wherever he’s needed.

In the United States, only 7 percent of green cards can go to citizens of any single country each year. As a result, I have dozens of high-skilled immigrant clients who are in a similar situation, stuck in a decades-long green card backlog, simply because they’re from a populous country.

This is as much a problem for U.S. employers as it is for foreign nationals. Companies cannot remain competitive in a global economy or meet consumer demand if they can’t hire and retain the workers they need. That’s especially true given the current labor shortages and pandemic delays for visa applications and renewals. This year, there are 1.6 million immigrants in the backlog for employment-based green cards.

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To fix these issues, Congress needs to pass a bill that would ease the path for high-skilled workers. This means allocating more funds to help the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services relieve processing delays and recapturing more than 157,000 unused employment-based green cards to help clear the backlog.

Once the backlog is fixed, the number of green cards and visas we offer to international workers should be flexible each year, depending on the needs of our economy. We currently have millions of available jobs and not enough workers to fill them — and it’s worsening by the day. A record 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in September. Our physician shortage is particularly acute. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States could face a dearth of 124,000 physicians by 2034. In 2015, 135 counties in the United States didn’t have a single physician, according to New American Economy. And since 2010, 120 rural hospitals have closed. New York State alone was short 1,188 doctors before the pandemic. COVID has only made the situation worse: A recent survey found that about 1 in 5 clinicians have considered quitting due to the pandemic.

The doctor from India has practiced medicine in the United States for 13 years. During that time, he’s watched many of his foreign-born colleagues quickly receive green cards, simply because they were born in a different country. In the meantime, his lengthy wait has impacted his entire family. If he were to pass away, his wife and son would immediately have to return to India. His wife runs her own business, but she’d have to give it up. The doctor’s father died from COVID earlier this year, but he couldn’t attend the funeral in India because only green card holders or citizens were allowed to reenter the United States at the time. It’s no wonder that other talented doctors — along with scientists, engineers and researchers — opt to resettle in countries with friendlier immigration policies.

By creating barriers for high-skilled workers, we’re limiting our economic growth. Studies show that when companies have the flexibility to hire high-skilled immigrants, both performance and profits improve. Entrepreneurs are also hindered by these policies. Because the H-1B temporary work visa requires sponsorship from an employer, would-be immigrant entrepreneurs are discouraged from starting their own businesses. Their entrepreneurial spouses face similar disadvantages. This reduces potential tax revenue and job creation at a moment when we’re trying to recover from the pandemic.

The good news is that Congress has an opportunity to fix this problem: Give unused green cards to high-skilled workers that need them and secure our country’s economic future. The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would do just that. The Senate should do the same.

Stephen Yale-Loehr is professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School and of counsel at Miller Mayer LLP in Ithaca, N.Y. Follow him on Twitter @syaleloehr