150-Year Wait for Indian Immigrants With Advanced Degrees

I have previously written that no one knows how long legal immigrant workers will have to wait for permanent residency (i.e. green cards) in the United States, particularly from India where the wait times are the longest. But now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has released the number of applicants for each category, so we can compute rough estimates of the number of years it will take people applying today to receive their green cards.

Table 1 provides the data. As of April 20, 2018, there were 632,219 Indian immigrants and their spouses and minor children waiting for green cards. The shortest wait is for the highest skilled category for EB-1 immigrants with “extraordinary ability.” The extraordinary immigrants from India will have to wait “only” six years. EB-3 immigrants—those with bachelor’s degrees—will have to wait about 17 years. The biggest backlog is for EB-2 workers who have advanced degrees. At current rates of visa issuances, they will have to wait 151 years for a green card. Obviously, unless the law changes, they will have died or left by that point.

Table 1: Indian Immigrants Waiting for Green Cards (Approved Petitions for Alien Worker)*

  Primary Spouse & Children Total Share Waiting 2017 Visas Issued Share of Visas Projected Wait
EB-1: Extraordinary ability

34,824

48,754

83,578

13%

13,082

58%

6 Years

EB-2: Advanced degrees

216,684

216,684

433,368

69%

2,879

13%

151 Years

EB-3: Bachelor’s degrees

54,892

60,381

115,273

18%

6,641

29%

17 Years

Grand Total

306,400

325,819

632,219

100%

22,602

100%

-

Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Annual Visas from U.S. Department of State; *As of April 20, 2018 with Priority Date On or After May 2018 Department of State Visa Bulletin; Note: Spouses & children are based on USCIS’s estimate of the ratio of primary to dependent applicants

Immigration attorneys Adam Greenberg and William Stock pointed out to me two caveats regarding these calculations. First, because almost all EB-2 workers qualify under EB-3 since they have bachelor’s degrees, they—or their employers—can refile under the EB-3 category. This means that the wait times between the categories could start to average out. Most immigrants in the EB-2 backlog likely haven’t refiled in the EB-3 line because the wait times for applicants who are receiving their green cards right now are basically the same for EB-2 and EB-3 (about a decade). There is the cost of refiling, so that would tend to discourage line jumping. However, averaging the two lines still yields a wait time of 58 years for both categories. Second, there could be some duplicate petitions filed for the same individuals by different companies. We have no way to quantify this phenomenon, but it is likely not too substantial because most employers withdraw the petition once their employee leaves. USCIS’s report also states that it excluded “revoked or reopened” petitions, so it did attempt to clean the data of the duplicates.

As Table 1 shows, the green card allocation is not based on the length of the backlog, so 69 percent of the backlog is in the EB-2 category, but it received only 13 percent of the green cards issued in 2017. There are two reasons for this. First, each category is guaranteed a minimum of 40,040 green cards, so the allocation between categories does not adjust when one category has higher demand than the others. Second, EB-2 is currently subject to the per-country limits—previously discussed here—that prevent Indian immigrants from receiving more than 7 percent of the green cards issued in the category.

For employment-based green cards, the per-country limit only applies in full force when the category is filled up, meaning that if some green cards would go to waste, Indian immigrants can receive above the per-country limit of 7 percent. For this reason, Indian immigrants received nearly 18 percent of the total green cards issued in the EB-3 category in 2017. The last time the per-country limits fully applied in EB-3 was in 2012. The demand in EB-2 is so high from other countries right now, however, that EB-2 immigrants from India received only about 7 percent of the total.

This inconsistency in the application of the per-country limit raises a third important caveat to the calculations above. If the per-country limits end up not applying fully for EB-2 during some future years, they could receive their green cards before the next century. For example, if they received the same number of green cards as EB-3 workers did in 2017, they would have to wait “only” 65 years, rather than 151 years as projected in Table 1 based on the number of issuances in 2017. On the other hand, if the per-country limits end up applying fully for EB-3 workers after 2018, they could end up having to wait more than 40 years, rather than 17 years.  

It’s worth emphasizing that the per-country limits are still discriminating against EB-3 Indians. Only once every other national who wants a green card in that category gets one do they get relief, so tens of thousands of immigrants from other countries are still bypassing them in line, even though Indians have waited longer. The absurd wait times for Indian immigrants highlights the importance of ending this pointless discrimination in the legal immigration system—which the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act (H.R. 392)—but Congress shouldn’t just adopt a spread-the-pain policy either. It should increase the number of green cards issued as well.