Read the full paper here.

Key Takeaways

  • The waiting list for green cards has grown well into the millions and is expected to continue growing, leading to unacceptable wait times for applicants and imposing severe costs on the U.S. economy.
  • Accumulated administrative errors and the disruption of COVID-19 have exacerbated the shortage of green cards by leaving unused hundreds of thousands of green card slots that Congress has authorized. 
  • Recapturing unused green cards and preventing green cards from going unused in the future would help restore the immigrant population in the United States to what Congress intended while generating many billions of dollars of economic activity and billions in net revenue streams. Congress has recaptured unused green cards twice with bipartisan support, but many more green cards remain available for recapture.
  • The executive branch could act alone to recapture over 231,000 unused employment-based green cards, adding $216 billion to GDP over 10 years. 
  • If Congress amended the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century (AC21) Act, which already recaptured some 180,000 unused employment-based green cards, over 339,000 additional unused green cards could be recaptured, which would add $104 billion to GDP over 10 years.
  • If the recapture provisions in the U.S. Citizenship Act (USCA) were signed into law, over 940,000 unused employment-based and family preference green cards would be recaptured, adding $815 billion to GDP over 10 years. 

Introduction

The United States has fostered a stellar reputation as a hub for opportunity and innovation throughout the world. Numerous studies show how immigrants have greatly contributed to the success of this country by launching major businesses and making new scientific discoveries. A great many of these individuals relied on the ability to obtain permanent residency (also known as a “green card”) in the United States in a timely manner to further their businesses or continue their research. Over the past three decades, however, this system has increasingly broken down.

Congress has provided for a limited number of green cards to be available each year, and these numbers were last fixed in statute in 1990. Specifically, there are only 140,000 employment-based green cards available per year and less than half are awarded to the principal worker; the rest go to workers’ spouses and minor children. For family preference immigrants, there is an effective annual ceiling of 226,000 green cards.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the federal government has failed to award hundreds of thousands of green cards due to administrative challenges and more recently because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress has directed the executive branch to “recapture” some of these unused green cards from time to time over the years, but hundreds of thousands of green cards remain available for recapture.

We examine three main alternative proposals to recapture unused green cards: 

  • Under what we term “administrative recapture,” the narrowest method, the administration could unilaterally recapture at least 231,584 unused green cards. 
  • By amending the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century (AC21) Act, which already recaptured some 180,000 unused employment-based green cards, we calculate Congress could recapture more than 339,000 additional unused green cards. 
  • Finally, if Congress adopted the recapture provisions in President Biden’s proposed U.S. Citizenship Act (USCA), it would recapture over 940,000 unused green cards.

We estimate how each of these three recapturing scenarios would affect the U.S. economy and the fiscal impact that each scenario would have on federal, state, and local governments. Our estimates are summarized in the table below:

This problem is especially urgent over the next four months. As we describe in greater detail below, the COVID-19 pandemic has likely placed well over 100,000 green cards from this fiscal year at risk of being lost forever on September 30, 2021. 

Without immediate action, green card backlogs are only going to get worse, significantly harming not only the United States’ economic growth, but also the country’s reputation as the primary destination to start businesses or launch careers. Recapturing unused green cards would help restore the immigrant population in the United States to what Congress intended while generating many billions of dollars of economic activity and billions in net revenue streams.

Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash