Today, Sen. Rand Paul introduced the Backlog Elimination, Legal Immigration, and Employment Visa Enhancement (BELIEVE) Act (S. 2091). The BELIEVE Act would solve most of the major issues with skilled immigration in one piece of legislation. Altogether, the bill would increase green cards (which grant permanent residence) for employment-based immigrants by nearly fourfold, and it does so without making any changes that would injure other categories of legal immigration.
The long-term economic and fiscal benefits of this bill are difficult to overstate. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimated in 2016 that the lifetime net present value of the average immigrant with a college degree to all levels of government was between $210,000 and $345,000 (Table 8-14). For those with more than a bachelor’s degree, the NAS estimate was between $427,000 and $654,000.
The BELIEVE Act would do more to move the United States toward a merit-based system than any other legislation introduced this congress. No legislation since the 2013 immigration reform bill that passed the Senate would increase skilled immigration more than this bill. A fourfold increase in employment-based permanent immigration would bring the United States more in line with the Canadian system, though Canada would still allow about twice as much economic legal immigration per capita than the United States and a higher rate of legal immigration overall.
Here are the specific elements of the bill:
- Ends the per-country limits on green cards for employment-based immigrants (p. 2). This is the same change as the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which passed the House yesterday (H.R. 1040). Right now, the law states that nationals of no single country can use more than 7 percent of the green cards unless the green cards would go unused. If the cap is reached, nationals of other countries get to bypass them in line and receive a green card ahead of those who applied earlier. This change would make every foreign worker wait in the same line and so face the same wait times.As a result of the country limits, Indian employees of U.S. businesses receiving green cards under the EB2 or EB3 categories in 2018 waited a decade while everyone other than Chinese applicants waited less than a year. If the country caps remain, Indians who are applying today for an EB2 or EB3 green card face about a half century wait and roughly 50,000 will die without seeing a green card. The per-country limits also inadvertently force immigrants with the highest wage offers (Indians, again) to wait much longer than others.
- Increases the limit on green cards for employment-based immigrants from 140,000 to 270,000 (pp. 1-3). This increase would double the caps for the first through third preference categories (mainly employees of U.S. businesses) as well as the fifth preference category for major investors in U.S. enterprises. The worldwide limits have not increased since 1990 when the U.S. economy was half the size that it is today, and most of the major tech companies did not exist or were in their infancy. About three quarters of the Fortune 500’s largest companies in 1990 have been replaced. This update reflects the changes in the economy since 1990.
- Exempts spouses and minor children of employment-based immgirants from the limit (p. 3). This change accords with the actual statute as it exists today, but this legislation would explicitly require the government not to count them against the quotas. About half of all green cards issued under the employment-based categories are actually used by spouses and minor children. It makes no sense to reduce the quota on workers simply because the worker is married or has a child. In other words, this would further double the employment-based cap. As a result, these two changes would end wait times for all immigrants in a very short period of time.
- Exempts “shortage occupations” (currently nurses) from the limit (pp. 3-4). If the Department of Labor (DOL) currently lists an occupation as a shortage occupation, employers may hire foreign workers on green cards without the normal burdensome labor certification process. So far, DOL has listed only two occupations as shortage occupations: nurses and physical therapists. The BELIEVE Act would exempt shortage occupations from the green card limit entirely. This change is important because nurses are currently ineligible for H-1B high-skilled visas, which means that the only way for them to get a foot in the door of a U.S. business is a green card. There are not precise statistics from the government on the number of foreign nurses, but it is likely about 7,000. While this would immediately benefit nurses and physical therapists, this change would also allow DOL to exempt occupations in future years if it updated its regulations.
- Creates uncapped green card category for children of legal temporary workers (pp. 4-5). Under current law, skilled workers who enter on temporary worker visas can bring with them their spouses and minor children, but when their children turn 21, they “age out” of eligiblity and either have to leave the country or find a new visa for themselves. They are in a very similar situation to the Dreamers in DACA who grew up in the United States from a young age but whose temporary status can expire.Section 4 of the legislation would grant a green card to any foreign graduate of a U.S. unviersity who ever entered as a child of an E, H, or L temporary worker and lived in the United States for an aggregate period of at least 10 years. This language would even include some children who have already been forced to self-deport. I have previously written about the huge fiscal benefits that these children would provide to the United States but also about how the Dream Act excludes them by requiring applicants to be in the country illegally.
- Provides employment authorization to spouses and minor children of temporary workers (pp. 5-6). As mentioned above, the law allows temporary workers to bring with them their spouses and minor children, but it doesn’t explicitly authorize them to work. The BELIEVE Act would specifically require the government to issue an employment authorization document to the spouses and children of E, H, or L temporary workers. This would provide huge economic benefits to the United States by incorporating a large and talented group of workers into the economy.
- Provides employment authorization and legal status while waiting for a green card (pp. 7-8). Under current law, it can be very difficult for skilled workers waiting for a green card to change jobs without risking one’s status. This bill would grant employment and travel authorization “incident to status,” meaning that they wouldn’t need to apply for a new set of documents and that the authorizations would remain valid until a visa becomes available. Given the other fixes in this bill, this change is not as consequential as it would otherwise be because this bill would eliminate the backlog for green cards entirely. As a result, no employment-based immigrant would need to wait due to the quotas and be forced to take advantage of this provision. Nonetheless, it is a safeguard against workers being stuck with a single employer during their waiting periods.
I have written about nearly all of these changes in my posts: Why the Legal Immigration System Is Broken: A Short List of Problems, Ten Irrational and Infuriating Aspects of U.S. Legal Immigration, and elsewhere. There are a couple of problems with skilled immigration that the bill doesn’t address—including the outdated H-1B limit and the burdensome and nonsensical labor certification process for employers—but overall, the legislation would make the United States far more competitive for foreign talent than current law and prevent the removal of hundreds of thousands of skilled workers. This legislation would benefit the U.S. economy enormously.