White House says it is engaged with green card backlog, but skepticism abounds

A man exits the transit area after clearing immigration and customs on arrival at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, U.S., September 24, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan/Files

On February 28, 2024, the White House confirmed its efforts to simplify the H1-B visa process, alleviate Green Card backlogs, and enhance the overall integrity of the United States immigration system.

But its all been said before by different entities in succeeding administrations. Yet studies show the process of clearing the massive backlog appear not to have gone far. Indians who are the largest group suffering from the seeming malaise on both H1-B visa processing and the transition from the work visa to permanent residence, would predictably be skeptical of promises made, even if they emanate from the White House.

Press Secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre while responding at the White House press briefing, to a question on President Joe Biden’s efforts to address legal immigration issues, noted, “So, one of the steps — if we look at H1-B visa process, we have taken action to improve that: end the process and backlogs for lawful permanent residents who are eligible to become U.S. citizens.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre during the press briefing on February 14, 2024, at the White House in Washington DC. PHOTO: T. Vishnudatta Jayaraman, News India Times

Jean-Pierre went on to say, “Just last month, for example, as a part of our efforts to strengthen the integrity of our immigration system and reduce potential for fraud, DHS [Department of Homeland Security] published a final rule relating to H1-B visas. So, the changes promote fairer and more equitable outcomes.”

As if to drive home a point, Jean-Pierre reiterated, “And so, we will continue our work to improve the system within our authorities. And that has certainly been a priority… But we take that very seriously. And we’re continuing to do everything that we can to improve the visa process.”

Associate Director, Immigration Studies, Cato Institute, David Bier, however, paints a somewhat dismal picture. In his recent paper, “Green Card Approval Rate Reaches Record Lows” points out that since the 1920s, the United States has imposed stringent controls on legal immigration. This century’s restrictive legal limits have led to a surge in illegal immigration and an unprecedented volume of applications for green cards, he notes.

“Only about 3 percent of the people who have submitted green card applications will receive permanent status in the United States in fiscal year (FY) 2024,” according to Bier.

“At the start of this fiscal year, approximately 34.7 million applications were pending—up from about 10 million in 1996,” Bier noted in his paper. “Legal immigration caps plus uncapped categories permit only about 1.1 million green cards for FY 2024, meaning that 97 percent of green card applicants will not receive one this year.”

His recommendation is for Congress to view green card applicants as a significant opportunity to tap into the “economic potential of immigrants.” He emphasized that approving all current applicants and significantly increasing legal immigration could help mitigate “the adverse consequences of demographic decline and reduce illegal immigration” in the United States.

Bier’s suggestion sounds like music to the ears of the hundreds of thousands of Indians waiting in line, but its not even close to what the White House may be engaged in considering.

“The point is that backlog people are here and paying taxes and all. So why have a quota for green cards,” said one person whose family is in line for permanent residence. “Don’t  hand out that many H1-Bs if you can’t give green cards,” they say in frustration, adding it was time to clear the slate and deal at one go with the green card backlog.

“A lot gets said about it (green card backlogs), and a lot gets put up in the air, but nothing happens,” Neha Mahajan, co-founder of Skilled Immigrants in America., an organization that has been lobbying on the H1-B and green card issues for more than a decade. “Since the Obama administration brought the H-4EAD rule, that too for a very specific subset, nothing other than talk has happened,” Mahajan contended. “We are very skeptical. On the one hand, it is good the White House is cognizant of the matter and talking about it. But the ground reality is, nothing has been done about it — and now, we are in an election year…”

Add to that, illegal immigration, which has been a contentious issue in the United States and has become a top issue in the run up to the Nov. 5, elections. On February 29th, both President Biden and former President and Republican front runner Donald Trump visited the US-Mexico border in Texas in a display of their seriousness.

Significantly, matters of H-1B visa and Green Card backlogs were discussed between President Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during PM Modi’s state visit to the United States in June last year.

Green card applications and limits, 1996 and 2024. Graph: Cato Institute

A joint statement by President Biden and Prime Minister Modi on June 22nd said, “The leaders welcomed an announcement by the U.S. Department of State that it would launch a pilot to adjudicate domestic renewals of certain petition-based temporary work visas later this year, including for Indian nationals, with the intent to implement this for an expanded pool of H-1B and L visa holders in 2024 and eventually broadening the program to include other eligible categories.”

“It has now been decided that the H-1B visa renewal can be done in the US itself. A pilot project in this regard will be started soon. This will help thousands of IT sector employees here,” PM Modi told the Indian diaspora during a community event in June at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington DC.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), on January 30th, announced a final rule to enhance the integrity of the H-1B registration process, aiming to minimize the risk of fraud. This involves mitigating opportunities for manipulating the registration system and ensuring equal selection chances for each beneficiary, irrespective of the “number of registrations submitted on their behalf.”

“We’re always looking for ways to bolster integrity and curtail the potential for fraud while improving and streamlining our application processes,” USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou said in a statement. “The improvements in these areas should make H-1B selections more equitable for petitioners and beneficiaries and will allow for the H-1B process to be fully electronic from registration, if applicable, until final decision and transmission of approved petitions to the Department of State.”

The USCIS’s H-1B Registration final rule has been designed to establish a registration process focused on beneficiaries, formalize flexibility in start dates for specific petitions under the congressionally mandated H-1B cap, and introduce additional measures pertaining to integrity and registration processes.

The rule also “codifies USCIS’ ability to deny or revoke H-1B petitions where the underlying registration contained a false attestation or was otherwise invalid.”

Additionally, on February 28th, the USCIS, introduced new organizational accounts in its online system. These accounts enable collaboration among multiple individuals within an organization and their legal representatives for the preparation of H-1B registrations, H-1B petitions, and Form I-907.

On the same day, the USCIS also launched online filing of Forms I-129 and I-907 for non-cap H-1B petitions. Starting from April 1, USCIS will start receiving online submissions for H-1B cap petitions and Forms I-907 for those whose registrations have been chosen.

The USCIS has also noted that the commencement of the FY 2025 H-1B cap initial registration period is scheduled for 12 pm Eastern time on March 6th and will continue until 12 pm Eastern time on March 22nd. Within this framework, potential petitioners and their representatives are required to use a USCIS online account to register beneficiary for the selection process. Additionally, they must submit the “associated registration fee for each beneficiary” during this registration period.

Each year, the US government allocates 65,000 H-1B visas and a substantial number of these visas go to Indian-based companies such as Infosys and Tata Consultancy Services, but many other sectors suffer from what is not being done about green card backlogs.

Back in April 2021, Indian health care workers protested in Washington, D.C., to end the green card backlog.They shouted slogans like, “COVID warriors are dying in green card backlog, facing aging out children; going through family separation,” and held banners reading, “My parents are COVID Wariors. If they die, I get deported. I lived all my life in USA. Is this ‘compassionate immigration, Mr. Biden? End green card backlog now.”

Indian physician, Dr. Pranav Singh, relocated to India in 2021 because he had been waiting too long, one account goes. Dr. Raj Karnatak tweeted on January 1, 2023, “While I am still waiting in decades of inhumane green card backlog. I see physicians those came to the US a decade after me received their green card and many already citizens. I can’t change where I was born. US must stop country of birth discrimination in 2023…”  

Stories abound within the Indian immigrant community that are accompanied by deep frustration and anxiety, with possible health consequences, a subject for study in and of itself.

“Why hand out that many H1-Bs if you can’t give green cards,” questions one Indian immigrant who has been subjected to the waiting. “And now that they have done it over the years, just hand it (green card) to them. They are paying taxes, and living lawfully and legally.”



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