Green Card Backlog Puts Lives In, on the Line

Lemuel Dsouza no longer sees the point of staying in the U.S.

If he stayed here on an H-1B visa, waiting for a green card, he would be stuck in the same job for years, stagnant in his career. But back home in India, he’ll be free to create his own company, apply for any job he wants and take full advantage of the country’s burgeoning tech sector. So in a search of better opportunities, he’s moving back home this month.

The irony doesn’t escape him.

“It wasn’t worth the risk,” he said on a recent evening, shortly after quitting his job at a Bay Area tech company.

Dsouza didn’t want to become a statistic: one of tens of thousands of people who have lived legally in the U.S. for decades, but still don’t have a green card. But this week, hundreds of foreigners who don’t want to leave their lives here are meeting lawmakers in Washington to bring more attention to the green card backlog, an oft-overlooked issue in the wider immigration debate.

Their message: If something isn’t done about this soon, they, too, will have no choice but to pack up and leave the U.S.

The green card backlog is not new, but it has worsened over the years as more foreigners come into the U.S. and the number of green cards — those pliable pieces of plastic that show permanent residency — remains the same. About 140,000 employment-based green cards become available every year and, regardless of population, no country can generally receive more than 9,800 a year in the same category.

For Estonian programmers or Chilean designers, that’s not a problem. But every year, tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian nationals on work-based visas overwhelm the number of slots available.

There are a number of bills attempting to fix the backlog by increasing or removing the per-country cap, including one proposed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, last month. Another bill, by Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., has about 300 co-sponsors, many from California’s congressional delegation.

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