Tag: green cards

Congress Can Recapture 4.5 Million Unused Green Cards

Since 1921, Congress has set hard numerical caps for most types of immigrants coming to the United States on green cards.  They have always included uncapped exceptions to green cards for most spouses and minor children of American citizens, but other family-based green card categories and economic or employment-based green cards have had numerical caps based on the category, country of origin, or both since 1921.  

During that time, Congress allocated 25,294,990 green cards under the numerically-limited green cards categories, but the government only issued 20,567,754 green cards that counted against those caps.  Recapturing all those historically unused green cards, minus the 180,000 green cards recaptured in other legislation, would yield 4,547,236 additional green cards – enough to reduce the entire current green card backlog by 96 percent.

We counted the number of green cards issued annually against the number of green cards available in the capped categories in the historical INS and USCIS documents back to 1922.  That year was the first full year in which numerical quotas were applied.  We then added the roughly 2.7 million green cards issued after the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act amnesty because they were erroneously counted against the numerically capped categories in some years.  Occasionally, more green cards were issued in the capped categories than were allowed, so we subtracted them from the total number that can be recaptured.  We also subtracted the 130,000 and 50,000 green cards recaptured in the 2000 American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act and the 2005 REAL ID Act, respectively.          

In 72 of the 96 years from 1922 through 2017, when we have data on the number of green cards issued and when the numerical caps were fully in place, the U.S. government has issued fewer green cards than were allocated under the cap.  The Great Depression and World War II saw the greatest number of unused green cards – about 1.9 million. 

Previous bipartisan bills introduced in recent years have sought to recapture some green cards, but they only go back to the implementation of the Immigration Act of 1990.  This proposed recapture is bolder as it goes back to the implementation of the first green card quotas in 1921.  As a justification to reduce the green card backlog to a manageable level or to clear it out before replacing the current system as part of comprehensive immigration reform, recapturing over 4.5 million unused green cards from the past would reduce many of the most maddening aspects of the current immigration system.

Special thanks to Sofia Ocampo-Morales for her research for this blog post.

Four Missing Components from Kushner’s Merit-Based Immigration Reform

President Trump recently released another plan to reform the immigration system.  The latest plan was drafted with the help of his son-in-law and presidential advisor Jared Kushner.  Overall, this last plan is the best of those proposed so far as it reduces legal immigration the least, as my colleague David Bier ably explains.  Kushner’s impact on President Trump’s thinking on immigration, as on the area of criminal justice reform, has been extremely positive and I hope that his advising role continues to expand.  The fundamental idea of merit-based immigration reform is sound: There should be more economic immigrants admitted to the United States.  Still, there are at least four additions to the Kushner plan that would make an enormously positive difference in the final policy. 

The following four points are reforms that should have been included in the Kushner plan that would transform the U.S. immigration system into one that emphasizes economic and merit-based immigration without reducing family-based immigration.  Regardless of any other legal changes, the following four reform suggestions would be positive on their own.



  1. Reform employment-based green cards by exempting immediate relatives, exempting adjustments of status, and ending the per-country limits from the numerical quota.  Exempting children and spouses from the employment-based green card quotas would immediately increase the number of green cards for skilled workers by over 60,000 annually, based on the 2017 numbers.  Even better, Congress should exempt adjustments of status from the green card quota as 82 percent of them were already living here legally on another visa before earning their employment-based green cards.  At a minimum, this would increase the number of employment-based green cards issued annually by over 100,000 and possibly by far more.  Lastly, ending the per-country limits would reduce unjust discrimination against immigrants from populous countries.  While ending the per-country limits would not increase merit-based immigration on its own, exempting family-members and adjustments of status would achieve a similar benefit for those in the backlog while boosting the number of employment-based green cards annually.
  2. The Kushner plan should have endorsed the state-based visa reform program that was introduced last Congress by Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI).  Senator Johnson’s bill was inspired by the Canadian Provincial Nominee Program (PNP) that is the second largest source of economic immigrants to Canada.  Johnson’s state-based visa program would issue 500,000 non-immigrant visas annually divided among the states by population with each state guaranteed at least 5,000 annually.  Unlike other visas, state-based visas would be mostly regulated by state governments that would determine the economic criteria for selecting migrants.  Rather than be constrained by the visa categories that the federal government believes are the best, states would be allowed to experiment by creating visas for entrepreneurs, investors, or workers of any skill or type.  Crucially, states would not have to participate in the state-based visa program if they don’t want to and the number of visas would automatically grow in states that follow the rules and shrink in those that don’t.  Please check out Senator Johnson’s bill and David Bier’s wonderful paper about it.
  3. The third proposal that would have boosted the merit of Kushner’s plan is the immigration tariff.  Heavily influenced by the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker, an immigration tariff would sell non-immigrant permanent resident visas called a gold card.  The numerical quantity of visas would not be limited in law, but the high prices for each visa would act as a de facto numerical limit on the number issued.  As I proposed in a mock tariff schedule, Congress could set the price for visas based on the age and education of the migrant whereby younger and better-educated migrants pay a lower price than older less educated migrants.  The price of the visa offers some labor market protection to American workers but is also flexible enough that more migrants will purchase the gold card when the U.S. economy is expanding and fewer will do so when the economy is shrinking.  Furthermore, those willing to pay high prices for a visa will be extra motivated to succeed here and they will also be more likely to believe that they have the abilities to do so.  The money raised through this tariff, which I estimate here, would be more than enough to cover the cost of the surge of asylum seekers along the southern border and provide additional resources for border security – although I prefer to use the funds to finance a tax cut for lower-skilled Americans.  There are many other proposals in this vein, such as the IDEAL visa, that the administration should also consider to boost merit-based migration.
  4. Do not cut the number of immigrants.  The Kushner plan does cut the number of new immigrants who will arrive in the United States annually even though it keeps the number of green cards the same.  The Kushner plan transfers family-sponsored preference green cards and diversity green cards to the employment-based green card categories.  Ninety-four percent of the immigrants who received a family-sponsored preference green card and 98 percent of those who received a diversity green card were new arrivals while the rest adjusted their statuses from other visas.  Meanwhile, eighty-two percent of employment-based green cards went to migrants who were already legally working and living in the United States – mostly on H-1B visas.  In other words, the Kushner plan trades new immigrant arrivals in the family and diversity green card categories for green cards in the employment-based green card categories that will go to workers who are mostly already in the United States.  Don’t get me wrong – green cards are better than H-1B visas as workers are more productive, have more flexibility, and make longer-term investments in their new home when on green cards as opposed to the temporary H-1B visa, but trading new immigrants for improving the economic prospects of existing migrants is a bad deal.  Although the number of green cards remains the same under the Kushner plan, the number of new immigrants arriving in the United States will decrease across all visa categories.




Many meritorious immigrants to the United States do not enter on economic visas but come in on family-based green cards and the diversity visa.  In the same way that Americans can be family members and workers, many immigrants enter the United States on family-based green cards also intend to work.  Over time, they are also becoming more skilled.  The share of admitted immigrants who have at least a college education increased from 22 to 39 percent from 1993 to 2015.  Over the same period, the share of admitted immigrants who are high school dropouts decreased from 37 percent to 27 percent.  Since so few new immigrants to the United States are on employment-based green cards, much of the increase in education must come from family-based immigrants and those on the diversity visa.  

Setting the number of legal immigrants is not like setting a budget that needs to be balanced over the long term.  There is no deficit here.  Increasing the number of explicit economic or merit-based immigrants does not mean that the number of family-based green cards needs to be cut.  It’s wonderful that the president seems to have moved away from his previous position that the number of green cards needs to be reduced and we can thank Mr. Kushner’s hard work for that, but the government can increase the number of economic and merit-based immigrants without changing any other portion of the immigration system.  If President Trump wants to be known for shifting America toward a more merit-based immigration system, boosting the number of economic immigrants without cutting family immigration is the path of least resistance and greatest gain.

More Family-Based Immigrants in Australia & Canada than in the United States

The United States’ immigration system favors family members over workers.  About two-thirds of all green cards issued annually are to immigrants whose qualification for being here is their relationship to American citizens or other green card holders.  This is in contrast to countries with so-called merit-based immigration systems that favor skilled immigrants, such as Australia and Canada.  Only 24 percent and 31 percent of annual immigrants to those two countries, respectively, gained permanent status through family connections.  Comparing the composition of the immigrant flow obscures important differences in immigration policy: Canada and Australia allow in many more immigrants than the United States does as a percentage of the population.

The United States allows in about a million lawful permanent residents a year, the largest number of any country, but that is a small percentage of the almost 325 million people who already live in the United States – about 0.3 percent annually.  By comparison, Australia Canada each allow in about 250,000 immigrants a year but they are much smaller countries with about 23 million and 35 million residents, respectively.  Thus, as a percentage of their populations, the annual inflow of immigrants into Canada and Australia is significantly larger than in the United States.  The annual number of immigrants to Australia is equal to 1.1 percent of the Australian population while the annual number to Canada is equal to about 0.7 percent of the Canadian population, which makes them 3.5 and 2.4 times as open to immigration as the United States, respectively (Figure 1).  If the United States were to copy Australia or Canada’s merit-based immigration policies, our government would admit about 2.3 million to 3.5 million immigrants annually.     

Figure 1

Immigrant Inflow as a Percent of Population, 2013


Sources: OECD, EuroStat, E-Stat, Citizenship and Immigration Canada

Defending Green Cards

The 2016 GOP platform states that:

“In light of the alarming levels of unemployment and underemployment in this country, it is indefensible to continue offering lawful permanent residence to more than one million foreign nationals every year.”

The GOP platform statement assumes that those on green cards take jobs from Americans, an assumption that is incorrect (see here, here, and here for more information). 

What’s actually indefensible about our green card system is how few of them come here for work purposes.  First, legal immigrant inflows to the U.S. as a percent of our population are small compared to other developed countries (Figure 1).  The only countries with fewer immigrant inflows as a percent of their populations are Portugal, Korea, Mexico, and Japan.  The United States does allow more immigration as an absolute number than any other country but we also have a very large population, making these annual flow figures seem small.

Figure 1

Immigrant Inflows as a Percent of Population, 2013


Sources: OECD, EuroStat, E-Stat, Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

These relatively small immigrant flows have only produced an immigrant percentage of our population that is midrange among the OECD countries (Figure 2).  New Zealand has the highest at 28.4 percent of their population while Mexico has the lowest at 0.84 percent of theirs.  The United States is in the middle at 13 percent.  Our legal immigration system is so restrictive that without unauthorized immigrants the U.S. population of the foreign-born would only be about 9.5 percent of our population – a 28 percent reduction in present numbers.

Figure 2

Immigrant Stock as a Percent of the Population, 2013

Source: OECD.

Green card workers admitted as a percentage of the total annual immigrant inflow are far lower here than in other countries (Figure 3).  Only about 7.7 percent of all green cards annually issued by the U.S. government are for workers – virtually all of them high skilled.  The employment-based green card system allowed about 140,000 green cards to be issued annually but that number also includes the family members of those workers.  In 2014, 56 percent of green cards set aside for skilled workers actually went to family while 44 percent were for the workers themselves.  The GOP platform wants to decrease this already small number of green cards for skilled workers even further.  

Employment-Based Green Cards Are Mostly Used by Family Members

The United States’ immigration system favors family reunification – even in the so-called employment-based categories.  The family members of immigrant workers must use employment-based green cards to enter the United States.  Instead of a separate green card category for spouses and children, they get a green card that would otherwise go to a worker. 

In 2014, 56 percent of all supposed employment-based green cards went to the family members of workers (Chart 1).  The other 44 percent went to the workers themselves.  Some of those family members are workers, but they should have a separate green card category or be exempted from the employment green card quota altogether. 

Chart 1

Employment Based Green Cards by Recipient Types


Source: 2014 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Author’s Calculations

Employment-Based Green Cards Are Mostly for Families

The United States’ immigration system favors family reunification – even in the so-called employment-based categories.  The family members of immigrant workers must use employment based green cards to enter the United States.  Instead of a separate green card category for spouses and children, they get a green card that would otherwise go to a worker. 

In 2013, 53 percent of all supposed employment-based green cards went to the family members of workers.  The other 47 percent went to the workers themselves.  Some of those family members are workers, but they should have a separate green card category or be exempted from the employment green card quota altogether. 

Source: 2013 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Author’s Calculations

How I-Squared Would Affect Employment Based Green Cards

Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the I-Squared Act of 2015 to reform the high-skilled immigration system.  Most of this bill attempts to improve the H-1B visa for temporary highly skilled workers by making the workers more legally mobile and increasing the quotas for that visa.  The H-1B is a dual-intent guest worker visa program, meaning that workers on the H-1B can pursue a green card while working on a temporary visa. The H-1B is a pipeline to the employment-based (EB) green card.

Most commentators will focus on the important and positive proposed reforms to the H-1B visa.  In contrast, I will focus on the reforms to the employment-based (EB) green card program.  I-Squared would exempt several categories of workers and their family members from the numerical quota imposed on EB green cards.  Although I-Squared does not increase the numerical quota, effectively it more than doubles the quota through exemptions.  As I detail here, this is a very positive move for U.S. economic growth.  Below I detail many of the exemptions in I-Squared and then make some suggestions for further streamlining and liberalizing the system.

Exempting Dependents

The most important exemption in I-Squared for EB green cards is for the spouses and children of workers.  Under current statutory interpretation, the family members of these workers count against the quota. Fifty-five percent of those who received the EB green card were the spouses and children of workers in 2013.  Allowing those spots to instead be filled with workers would more than double their number going forward.      

2013 Employment Based Green Cards: Families and Workers

Source: 2013 Yearbook on Immigration Statistics, Table 7.