Why Does the Government Care Where Immigrant Workers Were Born?

If you want to understand how flawed America’s immigration system is, consider this: the government treats immigrants differently based on their place of birth. The system considers immigrants’ education, use of welfare, criminal history, employment, family connections, and other personal details, but where you were born can make the difference between receiving legal residency immediately and waiting decades. This discrimination makes as little sense as discriminating based on race, gender, or any other attribute over which the individual has no control, and it should be abolished.

Fortunately, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has reintroduced the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act (H.R. 392) to abolish this discrimination for all employment-based immigrants.

Here is how the discrimination works. Rather than waiting in one big line together in the order that their applications were received, immigrants wait in separate lines based on their nationality—a line for Mexicans, a line for Swiss, a line for Canadians, etc. Each line has the same limit on the number of visas issued in any given year: no more than 7 percent of all visas issued that year. These are called the “per-country limits.” For example, there are 40,000 visas made available to immigrant workers (and their families) with a bachelor’s degree. No country can receive more than 2,800 of them.

This means that the line for the Estonians and the line for the Chinese each get the exact same number of visas—despite the fact that Estonia has just 1.3 million people and China has 1.3 billion. The U.S. government used to discriminate against the Chinese in favor of Europeans because it disliked the Chinese and liked Europeans. Now it discriminates against them—as well as Indians, Filipinos, Mexicans, etc.—because they were unfortunate enough to have been born in a much more populous country.

No one knows or is keeping track of how many people are waiting in the green card queue. The line grows and grows, but absolutely no one in the administration has an accurate estimate of how long those applicants will have to spend in line. Indian workers are one of the groups most negatively impacted by this system. As I have explained before:

All we know is this: that somewhere between 230,000 and 2 million Indian workers are in the backlog, so they’ll be waiting somewhere between half a century and three and a half centuries.

This is the system under which immigrant workers come to the United States. Come from a country with few applicants, and you get ushered to the front of the line. Come from a country with many applicants, and wait decades. Think about this from the perspective of their employers: you are effectively penalized for hiring Indians or Chinese workers. Both the employer and the immigrant must wait year after year, even as other immigrants from smaller nations receive their green cards. It is simply unfair.

The Fairness for High Skilled Immigrants Act would completely eliminate the per-country limits for employment-based green cards. Because such a long backlog has built up for certain nationalities, the bill phases the limits out over three years, reserving 15 percent of the immigrant visas in the first year after the bill passes for countries other than the top two in a specific category, and then 10 percent in the following two years before ending them altogether. It would also double the per-country limits for green cards for family members of U.S. citizens or residents.

This bill has a very good chance of becoming law this year. The country’s biggest anti-immigrant group NumbersUSA has said that it will not oppose the bill. This position helped an earlier version of the legislation pass the GOP-controlled House by an overwhelming vote of 389 to 15 in 2011. Unfortunately, Senators Charles Grassley and Jeff Sessions managed to hold up passage of the bill in the Senate. But last Congress, it was sponsored or cosponsored by 148 representatives—more than a third of all members of the House—and with Sen. Sessions out of the Senate and Sen. Grassley showing some willingness to compromise on the issue, it is possible that the bill could snake its way across the finish line.

Like all other people, immigrants should be judged based on their individual merits. Their place of birth, race, or gender should have no bearing on whether they can come to America.