Vayu’s (name changed) move from California’s Silicon Valley – considered the innovation mecca of the software world – to Gurugram meant not only moving into a much tinier apartment, but also giving up a more lucrative paycheck and a promising future at a large IT company.
After his bachelor’s in computer science at an American university and working for a little over a year, Vayu realised that the path to permanent residency in the US is long and uncertain.
“I will miss the buzz of the Valley, but I don’t want to be in the green card queue for years and years. I might try for Europe later."Vayu
Many others don’t realise early enough. Los Angeles-based engineer Nagaraj is one of tens of thousands of people who have lived legally in the US for decades, but still doesn’t have a green card. The family is in the ‘never-ending’ green card queue.
“We started learning about the wait time after applying. It might take many decades. It is very inhuman – me, my wife and my kids are stuck.”Nagaraj, Los Angeles-based engineer
As per a 2020 Congressional report on the Employment-based Immigration Backlog, Indians applying for a green card may have to wait up to 195 years before they receive one.
The infamous green card backlog in the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is not new. But it has worsened over the years as more foreigners come into the US, with the number of green cards allotted each year remaining the same.
As per the Cato Institute, employment‐based green card backlog reached a new record of 1.8 million cases this year out of which 1.1 million are Indians who "bear most of the burden of the broken system".
In a 2023 Cato Institute publication, David Bier computed that for new applicants from India, the "backlog is effectively a life sentence: 134 years. About 424,000 employment‐based applicants will die waiting, and over 90 percent of them will be Indians.”
The longer queue for those born in India is because the US imports a far higher number of skilled Indian professionals each year than the number of green cards it offers.
'How is it Possible for Someone to Wait for 195 Years'
Annual allotment limits are based on the country of birth of an applicant, not their nationality. The law says that a country can receive only up to 7 percent of green cards in a year.
Most high-skilled foreign workers in the US are H-1B visa holders. The programme allows them to live and work in the country for a maximum of six years. Within these six years, they must find an employer willing to file an employment-based green card application on their behalf.
With the largest share of H1-B visas granted to India-born high-tech professionals each year – on an average 75 percent of the allotted – the 7 percent country cap has created a massive green card processing backlog, hitting Indian H-1B visa holders and their H-4 dependent families the hardest.
Immigrants from most other countries receive their green cards within a year.
Co-founder of the advocacy group Green Card Backlog Coalition, Raghu believes that the H-1B related employment-based immigration laws were ‘written decades ago for the country’s needs of that time’. The system ‘is totally broken’ and ‘country caps’ do not work for the country’s current immigration needs.
He asks, “How is it even possible for someone to wait for 195 years for a green card? It’s unreasonable!”
A Struggle for India's Professionals in US
In July 2023, a bipartisan group of 56 US lawmakers, led by Congressmen Raja Krishnamoorthi and Larry Bucshon, urged the Joe Biden administration to take executive action to reduce the 195-year-long wait period for green card applicants from India. They stressed that the wait ‘disproportionately affects Indian tech professionals and highly skilled STEM talent, hindering their contributions to the country's growth and innovation’, while also leaving them in ‘a state of limbo’ within the US immigration system.
Uncertain waiting periods make workers vulnerable to being uprooted from the country if they face job losses, as became evident during the recent mass layoffs in the tech industry.
Priya (name changed) was laid off in November 2022 by a tech company. Her H-1B visa allowed her husband and son to live in the US legally on H-4 dependent visas. With a few weeks to find a job or return to India, the Indian American family chose to move to Canada.
Having worked in the US for a decade on an H-1B visa, if Priya’s green card had been as swiftly granted as it is to non-India-born workers, she would worry about finding her next job without the added anxiety of getting uprooted from a country she had made her home.
“Canada has been so nice to us. In just a little over a year, I got my PR, based on my husband’s PR – which also took relatively very little time, unlike the US process, which takes forever.”
Professionals on H-1B visas depend on their employment to be able to continue working in the US. Most workers fearful of losing jobs remain tethered to their employers for years, or even decades, till the employer-sponsored green card comes through. They are unable to start any entrepreneurial ventures till then.
“We get fooled at the end of the day. I could have taken three other jobs till now, but because of being in the green card queue, I am stuck. I can’t ask for a hike or promotion. We have to fulfill every demand of the employer.”Gaurav, a Missouri-based IT professional and an H1-B visa holder
Aman Kapoor, the president of the advocacy group Immigration Voice, believes, “The idea of green card backlog is about control. Software companies get more people from India because there is such a huge backlog. It is like a mushroom that keeps on increasing. Backlog begets more backlog.”
Indian H-1B holders are among the most educated and enjoy the highest median income of all immigrant groups in the US. Despite paying ‘high taxes’, they wonder why their adopted country gives them a blind eye.
Gaurav says, “None of us are less than graduates – minimum BTech. Most of us are earning not less than $100,000. We are not a burden on the government. If I move out to Canada, I will take close to a million dollars of our savings with me – all because of country caps.”
The unending green card queue forces many Indian professionals on H1-B visas to rethink their family life in their adopted homeland.
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)