The primary argument in favor of imposing maximum wait times for visas is that the status quo results in unreasonably long waits for individuals who have “played by the rules” and applied through the legal immigration system.
In 2019, Indian employees of U.S. businesses who received green cards waited about a decade in the employment‐based second preference (EB-2) and employment‐based third preference (EB-3) categories, with a backlog of more than 600,000 applicants. Their projected future wait time is about 119 years for the EB-2 and 20 years for the EB-3.21 These are projected estimates, and it is likely that the waits for EB-2 and EB-3 visas would shrink as individuals refile for other visas, abandon their applications, or die. But the waits would still stretch several decades. Chinese investors in the EB-5 category must also wait decades before they can receive green cards. Eliminating the per‐country limit for employment‐based immigrants would, by itself, lower the wait times considerably for Indians. A bill (the Fairness for High‐Skilled Immigrants Act) passed the House of Representatives in 2019 that would eliminate the per‐country limit for immigrants in the employment categories, following a three‐year transition period.22
Changing the law to allow a maximum wait of five years for employment‐based green cards would help even if a bill to eliminate the per‐country limits became law. That is because the 140,000-worldwide annual limit for employment‐based immigrants would remain in effect and, if the bill passes, the typical wait would exceed five years for applicants of all countries in the employment categories.23 A maximum wait time for green cards would reduce the negative effect of increasing wait times for immigrants from countries other than India or China by eliminating the per‐country limits.
Similar to employment‐based immigrants, the waits for family‐sponsored immigrants are affected by the low annual limits and the per‐country limit. As of November 1, 2019, approximately 3.5 million people were waiting in family‐based immigration preference backlogs, according to the Department of State.24 The backlogs can be divided as follows: siblings of U.S. citizens (approximately 2.1 million), adult children of U.S. citizens (883,000), and spouses and minor or adult unmarried children of lawful permanent residents (465,000). The State Department does not publish information on how many individuals have been waiting five or 10 years in immigration backlogs.
The waits are extremely long for those applying today in family‐sponsored categories. If the immigration backlog of approximately 200,000 married Mexican adult children is divided by 1,600, which is the annual per‐country limit for Mexico in that category, then the estimated wait time for a newly applying married adult Mexican son or daughter to immigrate to the United States is 125 years.25 Average wait times have doubled since 1990, the last time the worldwide limits were updated. For instance, Filipino siblings of adult U.S. citizens who received green cards in 2018 waited 23 years after entering the line for green cards in 1995.26
Like the numerical limits, the maximum wait time would also be arbitrary, but unlike increasing the numbers, a maximum wait time would spotlight the difficulty of legally immigrating here. The public would likely also be more receptive to a maximum wait time than increasing the numerical caps by an arbitrary amount. Everybody understands what a maximum wait time means. Few understand what additional green cards for specific categories mean.
While it may seem unfair to impose a longer maximum wait time for family‐sponsored immigrants, this is reasonable because they are almost all waiting abroad. And almost all employer‐sponsored immigrants are already here on another temporary visa. This means that a maximum wait time would benefit family‐sponsored immigrants more than employer‐sponsored immigrants.
The chief objection to the proposal would be that a maximum wait time for a green card would overrule the annual numerical limits legislated by Congress. However, if Congress were to impose a maximum wait time, then it would affirm a new principle: no one who applies for legal immigration should wait longer than five or 10 years.
In the case of employment‐based immigrants, over 80 percent are already in the United States working on temporary visas, such as the H-1B, which means a maximum wait time would only gradually change the number of workers physically in the country.27 Granting permanent residence sooner would give such individuals a greater opportunity to start a business or make other career changes sooner without visibly increasing the number of immigrants who are here. It would also make America a more appealing place to build a career for high‐skilled foreign nationals.
A maximum wait time of 10 years for family‐sponsored immigrants would not change whether individuals receive green cards but when they receive them. The proposal would greatly benefit American citizens waiting for their close relatives to be allowed to immigrate. It also would ease the burden of family separation, which is a laudable legislative goal.