Our legal immigration system is flawed in many ways. It has not been updated in the last 30 years, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it’s not working in a way that reflects how we live, work, trade, and travel today. In order to modernize our immigration system in a way that strengthens both our economy and our communities, we need updates that make it fairer and more transparent.
One attempt at reforming our system is Senate Bill 386, otherwise known as the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. The bill seeks to rectify a 30 year old policy that caps the annual amount of available green cards each country can receive by 7 percent. These per country caps have led to growing backlogs for the many applicants hailing from larger countries, forcing them to wait decades in line before receiving their green cards. Meanwhile, those from smaller countries face no wait at all. Simply put, these per country caps are needlessly discriminatory. An applicant’s ability to earn permanent residency in a fair and timely manner should not depend upon their country of origin.
When the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act passed the House last year, it represented a step in that direction. The bill’s original purpose was relatively simple and straightforward — treat all employment-based immigrant visa applicants on a first-come first serve basis, regardless of their country of origin. The bill also sought to increase fairness for family-based visa applicants by adjusting the per-country caps from 7 percent to 15 percent. Doing so would reduce the unjust disparity in waiting times and make our legal immigration system fairer.
This proposal represents an incremental fix to improve our country’s legal immigration system. Even then, this proposal is far from being a new idea. In fact, the original version of the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act has seen widespread bipartisan support. Sadly however, today’s debate over S. 386 mirrored previously failed congressional efforts to advance this bill. After multiple objections, amendments, and holds being placed on it, we now have a Frankenstein version of the bill that barely resembles the original.
While it’s commendable that lawmakers have not given up on advancing this bill, the Senate’s most recent unsuccessful effort to pass it has made two points clearer:
1) Several members have a diverse abundance of thoughts and suggestions, which has largely stonewalled any attempts to pass this bill by unanimous consent.
2) While S. 386 would incrementally improve the legal immigration system by making it more fair and transparent, it doesn’t resolve the crux of the issue which many lawmakers have either directly or indirectly pointed out — our system’s ballooning green card backlog will not be fully resolved until we increase the annual green card allotment and make legal immigration channels more responsive to the needs of American communities.
The reality is, the current immigration system lacks the adequate channels needed for people of wide-ranging backgrounds to enter the U.S. legally. While the original S. 386 bill would’ve been a modest improvement over our current system, it’s also true that it fell short of making the immigration system more accessible to those in pursuit of opportunity. But rather than improving S. 386, Congress undermined the bill’s very purpose by adding various carve outs and restrictive provisions.
If lawmakers in the next Congress revisit the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act, they should work to improve the system for everybody. They can start by sparing dependents of employment-based immigrants from being counted against the total annual green card limit. This would free up more visas for skilled professionals to legally immigrate. In 2016, over half of the 140,000 green cards issued were allocated to family members of the sponsored employees. This reform is consistent with how our system currently exempts dependents of guest workers from being counted against annual caps.
By broadening our legal immigration channels, we ensure that those seeking opportunity are properly vetted and we reduce the unintended consequences for unlawful immigration as a result of our largely inaccessible system and the dynamic needs of our economy.
This should now set the stage for Senators to begin thoughtfully debating their ideas in committee, to finally eliminate the unfair per-country caps and make the system fairer and more accessible .We stand ready to work with anyone who is committed to that effort, so that we do not find ourselves in the same place several years from now without anything to show for it.