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Fewer Green Card Applications at USCIS: A Double-Edged Sword

Sadia Subhani Email Sadia Subhani
September 2009
Fewer Green Card Applications at USCIS: A Double-Edged Sword

Mahesh Kanani* had been waiting 3 years for his labor-based Green Card to come through, but was laid off from his company before his time came. A highly successful IT programmer in Bangalore, Mahesh came to the United States to give his three children opportunities that he did not feel they had in India. He rose quickly to the top ranks of a well-known IT firm, and they readily agreed to sponsor him for a Green Card. That was in 2006. After quickly getting through the first two steps of the process, Mahesh became stuck in the limbo that so many sponsored workers are in now: waiting and waiting for his priority date to be reached on the visa bulletin, so that he could file his I-485 Petition for Permanent Residency. It is a particularly difficult situation for nationals of India: because of the large number of immigrants from that country, visa numbers are backed up years behind those of nationals of most other countries.

In 2009, as the company’s business plummeted due to rough economic times, Mahesh was laid off without having had an opportunity to file his I-485. Now, Mahesh is seeking another job, but is hampered by an atmosphere in which employers are not hiring, or are reluctant to hire foreign-born workers and then spend thousands sponsoring their permanent residency processes. The current situation is disastrous for those in Mahesh’s situation, but will most likely be beneficial for other groups of foreign workers.

The number of petitions from employers trying to bring foreigners to work permanently in the U.S. has declined dramatically over the last two years. Due to the economic times, USCIS has received about half the number of employer-sponsored applications for work-based green cards in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 than it did in each of the previous years. There were almost 235,000 applications submitted in fiscal 2007, almost 104,000 the following year, and fewer than 36,000 through the first eight months of fiscal 2009. Many economic sectors hardest hit in the economic downturn are among those that attracted the largest numbers of foreign workers, including the hospitality and financial industries. Also, some businesses still hiring are getting more applications from U.S. citizens, making it less likely they will be able to file applications stating that there are no U.S. workers available for the positions.

One unforeseen benefit of the drop in applications is that USCIS has been able to work through a large backlog that had led to wait times of 15 months or more in some cases. With a lighter work load and a larger staff in place, the approval process now takes less than six months on average from start to finish. However, to be able to file an application, an individual’s priority date has to be reached on the visa bulletin, issued monthly by the U.S. Department of State. For the last 4-5 years, there has been a large backlog in place on the visa bulletin, causing potential immigrants to have to wait years before filing their I-485 petitions. The reason for this is that there are only a certain number of immigrant visas available in each category every year, and USCIS must control how many are filed to allow for the quotas not to be overfilled. Now, with so many fewer applications coming in, the immigrant community is hopeful that the priority dates will move much more quickly.

But for those in Mahesh’s situation, there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Having relocated his family to three different parts of the country in hopes of finding a position, Mahesh has decided to return to India rather than waste more of his family’s savings in the hopes of finding a position in the US. That is one of the biggest tragedies of this economic downturn and of the unfortunate anti-immigration sentiment that has risen as a result of it: we will continue to lose the best and brightest that the world has to offer, and lose also the many advances our society could have had because of them.

*Name changed to provide privacy.

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