The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released new data showing that the green card backlog for employment-based immigrants in 2020 has surpassed 1.2 million applicants—the highest number ever. From November 2019 to April 2020, the new data show that demand exceeded the number of green cards issued by more than 109,000. The monthly rate of increase in the backlog has tripled from the rate from 2018 to 2019. Despite the infusion of new green cards in 2021, Indian employer-sponsored applicants face an 8-decade wait for green cards, and nearly 200,000 will die before they could even theoretically reach the front of the line.
This backlog is caused entirely by insufficient numbers under the green card limits—not delays in processing applications. When a petition is approved but no green card number is available, the immigrant enters the green card backlog. While more employment-based green cards will become available in fiscal year 2021, the new numbers will prove to be far fewer than the number required to meaningfully reduce the backlog. Congress needs to address this problem immediately.
Figure 1 shows the number of backlogged green card petitions for employment-based immigrants and their families during the three points in time that USCIS has made these numbers available. From April 2018 to November 2019, the backlog increased 215,394—or 11,488 per month—while from November 2019 to April 2020, it increased 153,056 or 30,611 per month. About half of the backlog comes from derivative beneficiaries (spouses and minor children) of the primary applicant.
The increases are almost entirely concentrated in the EB-2 and EB-3 category for employer-sponsored immigrants with master’s or bachelor’s degrees. The backlog for these categories increased 127,609. The category for unskilled employer-sponsored immigrants also notably jumped nearly 20,000 this year, and the EB-4 category for special immigrants increased nearly 28,000. EB-1 and EB-5 investor backlogs declined slightly.
About 68 percent of the employment-based backlog was from India in April 2020. This outcome is the result of country caps that limit nationals of any single birthplace to no more than 7 percent of the green cards in a year unless the green cards would otherwise go unused. Another 14 percent was from China, and 18 percent from the rest of the world. The Chinese backlog actually declined slightly during 2020 through April, but the backlogs for Indians and all other applicants grew significantly.
As a result of President Trump’s ban on immigration from abroad based on unjustifiable economic concerns, about 121,000 family-sponsored green cards went unused in FY 2020, so the EB backlog received an infusion (known as spillover) of that many additional green cards for FY 2021 above its normal allotment. This will certainly help bring the wait times down for skilled immigrants from India who have been the longest delayed, but not nearly enough for recently backlogged immigrants.
Table 1 shows that the EB-2 and EB-3 category backlog from India reached 741,209 in April 2020 and that despite the spillover from the family-based categories, backlogged petitions still face an expected wait of 84 years. Both categories are combined due to the potential for EB-2 workers to switch to the EB-3 category if wait times become more favorable there.
However, Table 1 predicts that about 186,038 Indian immigrants will die (based on Social Security Administration mortality tables) before they receive green cards even if they could remain in line forever. Of course, many Indians will leave the line long before they die, and Table 1 predicts using historical trends on abandoned petitions and accounting for aging out that only half the Indians in the backlog will receive green cards through the employment-based system.
For comparison, using numbers from November and not expecting the family-sponsored spillover, my paper earlier this year estimated that the backlog for India would take 89 years to clear with an expected 205,665 deaths before that time. Only 44 percent were expected to receive green cards. Thus, the spillover will make a dent in the waits for new Indian applicants, but only a very small one. The main effect will be felt by those who entered the EB-2 line before 2012 or the EB-3 line before 2016.
COVID-19 has probably affected the green card backlog in other ways as well. The number of deaths of H-1B holders in the backlog has probably increased from the Social Security Administration’s normal estimates. There are probably more abandoned applications as well as a result of H-1B workers losing jobs from business closures and downsizing during the economic downturn (though not a huge number as the unemployment rate has not significantly changed in the most common H-1B occupations overall).
But no one can argue that the spillover of additional green cards for 2021 has solved the backlog for green cards for skilled workers. Ultimately, Congress must act. It should repeal the green card limits on individual countries and then increase (or better yet eliminate) the overall caps on green cards for employment-based immigrants. The United States has already fallen far beyond the rest of the developed world for work-based permanent migration, and allowing this backlog to continue will only exacerbate that trend.