Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act: The case for a more merit-based immigration system

May 8, 2019

Ashish Patel first came to Utah legally in 2005 on a temporary high-skilled work visa. Since that time Mr. Patel worked hard at his job, paid taxes, followed the law, got married, and had two kids, both of whom were born American citizens.

In February 2011, Mr. Patel’s petition to earn a Green Card – the legal document that gives an immigrant the right to live and work in the United States permanently – was approved. Though approved, his Green Card remains unissued. If Mr. Patel had immigrated from any country in the world other than India he would already have his Green Card today.

But current immigration law caps the number of visas that can be given to immigrants from any given country at 7 percent of the total number of visas awarded for any given year. This means that immigrants from countries with large populations have to wait over decades for their visas to be issued – even though in the vast majority of cases these immigrants have already been living and working in the United States.

While these immigrants are patiently waiting for the per-country backlog to clear so they can earn permanent residency, they are severely limited in their ability to change jobs or seek a promotion because it might throw them to the back of the line. Because these Green Cards are tied to employment, changing jobs or starting their own business could force them to start from scratch. But it doesn’t just affect them or their employment opportunities; it affects American citizens, too.

Dr. Sri Obulareddy is an oncologist working just outside Dickinson, N.D., who came to the United States in 2006. She moved to North Dakota because the area is experiencing a shortage of specialized physicians, and her impact on the community has been invaluable. Recently, she tried to return from a trip to India, however approval for her visa was delayed for six weeks, forcing her patients to travel as far as 100 miles as they scrambled to find a temporary physician. The pain this caused her patients would never have happened if she hadn’t been subjected an arbitrary cap based on her country of origin and had already received her Green Card.

The status quo is simply unfair to the high-skilled immigrants left in limbo. The system needs reform.

That is why we have teamed up with colleagues across the aisle to introduce the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. Without increasing the number of employment-based visas, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act creates a merit-based system that would level the playing field for high skilled immigrants – regardless of their country of origin – by eliminating the per-country caps. This means immigrants receive Green Cards on a “first-come, first-serve” basis, rather than having their wait times depend on where they are from. What’s more, the bill contains important safeguards for immigrants who are already at the “front of the line” to ensure that the transition to a system without country caps is fair to them.

Immigration is often a contentious issue, but we should not delay progress in areas where there is bipartisan agreement. There is a clear desire for a more merit-based system to help our citizens and protect legal immigrants from being penalized for their country of birth. Treating people fairly and equally is part of our founding creed and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act reflects that belief.

Lee is the senior senator from Utah and a member of the Judiciary Committee. Cramer is the junior senator from North Dakota.

Op-ed originally published by The Hill