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‘We Live in Fear’: How Green Card Backlog Impacts Indian-Americans

Two Indian-American doctors leading protests share their concerns and expectations from the Biden-Harris government.

Updated

Video Editors: Sandeep Suman and Abhishek Sharma

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The current estimated wait time for an Indian national entering the green card backlog to get permanent residency in the US is 195 years – a number that is expected to reach 436 years in the fiscal year 2030. This glaring statistic was brought to light by Senator Mike Lee in August 2020 on the floor of the US Senate.

“Even if we give their children this limbo status, none of them will have a prayer of becoming a US citizen,” Lee had said.

In December 2020, the Senate unanimously cleared the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act to eliminate the per-country quota for employment-based immigrant visas.

But months later, the fate of Indians on green card backlog still hangs in balance as the legislation fell through because the versions passed by the House and the Senate in July 2019 and December 2020, respectively, were not reconciled prior to the end of the 116th Session of Congress.

WHAT IS CAUSING THE GREEN CARD BACKLOG?

The green card is a permanent resident card which allows people to live and work permanently in the US.

When green card applications exceed the number of available green cards – which is capped at 7 percent per country – the Department of State pushes the priority dates back. So, the visa bulletin indicates a backlog once the applications have reached the decided limit, and fresh applications pour in despite the unavailability.

This happens when applicants seeking permanent residency get their petition approved but are not assigned a green card number for lack of availability – thus entering the backlog.

The per-country limit of 7 percent allows Indian nationals to receive only 8,400 of the 120,000 employment-based green cards available each year.

For years now, the number of applicants have been far more than this annual limit.

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WHY IS THE PER-COUNTRY CAP A PROBLEM?

“For a country as big as India, more than a billion people will get only 7 percent (country cap) compared to the smallest country in the world, with a population of say 1,000 people,” says Dr Raj Karnatak, an infectious diseases specialist based in Wisconsin, who has been in the backlog for years.

Dr Karnatak is one of the organisers of the demonstration staged by Indian-American frontline workers in front of the US Capitol in early March this year, seeking an end to the backlog.

Another doctor associated with the protests, Dr Pranav Singh asserts that the country cap is discriminatory, as it limits the number of green cards without factoring in the population size of a country.

Singh, who has been in backlog for eight years, tells The Quint, “All the Democrats have to do is bring up the Bill (Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act) for vote. Once that passes, at least the country caps can be removed, and it will offer some reprieve. We can get the green card...it will still take its time but at least the process will be fair for everyone.”

In the fiscal year 2020 alone, the green card backlog for employment-based immigrants exceeded 1.2 million applicants – the highest ever, impacting many Indian nationals, according to the April 2020 data published by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

“A majority of the green card backlog consists of women and children, who will eventually die in these backlogs. Needless to say, the per-country limits on the employment-based green card system implies a de facto ban on employment-based green cards for any new Indian national entering the US on an H-1B visa,” PTI reported, quoting Aman Kapoor, president of Immigration Voice, an influential immigration advocacy group.

HOW IS THE BACKLOG IMPACTING INDIAN NATIONALS?

The green card backlog has left many Indian Americans in a permanent limbo, resulting in a human rights crisis.

“The primary issue is being on a temporary status for a lifelong limbo. You have to renew your status every few years and live in this fear that every time you file an application, it will be denied,” says Dr Karnatak.

With no law in place to protect the ones on backlog, applicants are often at the mercy of their employers, staffing companies who profit from the status quo and immigration lawyers.

These lawyers clear immigration applications by the dozen for personal gain by keeping Indian immigrants busy with renewing H-1B visa applications while also earning from keeping the green card pool open for people from other countries, said Kapoor to PTI.

Dr Singh explains, “As a non-citizen in the US, your options are very limited. You are indentured to one employer. You cannot change an employer easily. It can be done but it’s very difficult. It’s a process that can take a long time.”

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg, he says, adding that spouses of professionals on H1B fail to get work permits due to the backlog, as do children of green card applicants.

“A lot of us have kids who were born in India and are now in the US. Those kids are ageing out. Ageing out means when they turn 21, they are no longer dependent on us and have to either self-deport or sponsor their own visa. And some of them have been living in this country since they were infants and they have not seen anything outside the US. It’s easy for people to say go back to your country, but it’s not easy for the kids to go back to India and start a new life altogether. Basically, it’s leading to family separation.”
Dr Pranav Singh
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WHAT NOW?

In early February, the Biden administration introduced a comprehensive immigration reform Bill that aims at removing the country cap on green cards besides bringing a host of other reforms.

Citing an analysis by immigration firm Boundless, The Economic Times reported that this Bill, if enacted, would lead to a 35 percent annual increase in green card numbers – a massive breather for green card applicants.

But fear of bureaucratic delay is keeping Indians from being optimistic. Indian-American frontline workers in backlog believe there’s no political will to clear it.

“In the big scheme of things, politicians make decisions based on how it benefits them, not how it benefits the people. We are not in big numbers. The backlog population, if you include the families, is 1.2 million and politicians won’t care. One is racism, because we are not white. Second is we are not their vote bank, and third, in 60 days we haven’t heard a single word from the Biden-Harris administration that they would help remove the green card backlog,” said Dr Singh.

Dr Karnatak, on the other hand, says the government must look for immediate solutions instead of waiting for the Bill. “The biggest disappointment for higher-skilled immigrants in America is the US Congress. What we are saying as frontline healthcare workers (is that) we don't really need any Bill. Biden can direct the USCIS to use the wasted green cards from the past. As far as the bigger issue of the higher-skilled immigrants (is concerned), this HR1044 (Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2020) that was introduced here. We have now been learning that the Congresswoman who represented that Bill is just not interested anymore.”

Last week, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki acknowledged the protests against green card backlog at a press briefing, and said Biden “believes that there should be faster processing, that our immigration system is broken at many levels,” adding that “he is eager for Congress to move forward with action there.”

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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