Skilled Workers May See Green-Card Surge


Problems with the green-card program have prompted informal discussions in Congress about a law to offer more visas to highly skilled applicants

Congressional leaders have begun to discuss legislation that would sharply increase the number of high-skilled foreign workers who could become permanent U. S. residents in the next few years. While it's sure to be controversial, the measure, if it passes, could mean more than 100,000 additional green cards would become available for skilled workers, perhaps even doubling the 140,000 that are allotted each year. "There are some discussions going on informally," says Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the House subcommittee on immigration.

A sharp increase in green cards would come as a relief to many, particularly in the tech industry. High-skilled foreign workers have become increasingly upset in recent years because the wait to gain the cards, which confer permanent residency, has stretched to five or more years for certain applicants. Technology companies, including IBM (IBM), Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG), and eBay (EBAY), have also advocated for more skilled workers from other countries to be let into the country.

Unused Green Cards

The discussions in Congress have begun because of recent revelations about the green-card program. U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) has said that 10,000 of the 140,000 green cards allocated for employment-based applicants were never used last year, in part because the department lacked the resources to process applications. That outraged would-be immigrants and their advocates, because an estimated 500,000 people are waiting for their green cards, and any green cards that go unused contribute to a longer wait.

The discussions now beginning in Congress are over whether the USCIS can go back and allocate green cards that have gone unused in previous years. The total number that are left over from the past 10 years is estimated to be as many as 170,000. If the proposal moves forward, those green cards would likely be used over several years rather than in a single year. "We certainly hope that this works out," says Aman Kapoor, founder of Immigration Voice, an advocacy group for high-skilled foreign workers (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/19/07, "How Skilled Immigrants Found a Voice").

Such a move to recoup unused green cards has a historical precedent. In 2000, Congress passed a similar measure to allow the USCIS to hand out green cards that had gone unused in previous years. The argument for doing so is relatively straightforward: Congress approved the immigration laws that provide for 140,000 employment-based green cards each year. If the Administration, through the USCIS, is not distributing that many, then it is not following the intent of the law.

Still, recouping green cards from past years requires new legislation; it can't be done by the USCIS unilaterally. Skeptics think that Congress is unlikely to pass any legislation related to immigration because the issue has become so politically charged, especially in the wake of the failed comprehensive reform proposal this summer. Charles Kuck, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., calls the issue "radioactive."

Senate Support Needed

Lofgren says that it's too early to tell what the prospects are for the green-card proposal. She plans to discuss it with other Democratic leaders in the House. "Then we need to find out what's happening in the Republican caucus," she says. A core of congressmen in the House, largely Republican, have held firm against proposals to expand immigration, although most of their effort have focused on denying citizenship to people who are in the country illegally.

Of course, the Senate also needs to support the proposal. One key figure there is Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). He has led the effort to investigate potential abuses in the government programs for high-skill foreign workers. In particular, he has expressed concern that Indian outsourcing companies, including Wipro (WIT), Infosys Technologies (INFY), and Satyam Computer Services (SAY), are using temporary U.S. visas to facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/27/07, "More Heat for Indian Outsourcers").

Gaining Durbin's support for the green-card proposal could prove crucial. A spokesman for Durbin declined to comment on the prospects of the senator supporting such legislation.

Elstrom is news director at BusinessWeek.com.

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