Skills-based visa change helps some, hurts others

Senate expected to act on plan to remove green card per-country caps

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved a bill that will help workers from India, in particular, and China get employment-based green cards over the next few years.

The move will likely raise the frustration levels of people in other nations, such as the Philippines and South Korea, who may see their waits for a green card lengthen.

This GOP-sponsored legislation was approved 389 to 15 and eliminates the per-country cap on employment-based visas. The measures now goes to the Senate.

This "Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act" (H.R. 3012), doesn't increase immigration in the U.S., it just reshuffles how the visas are allocated. The U.S. issues 140,000 employment-based green cards annually, but limits them to no more than 7% from any one country. This bill eliminates that cap.

Ending per-country caps means that people who have been waiting in line the longest will be served first. That helps applicants from India, which has backlogs of more than 200,000 for certain types of green cards -- and waits of nine years or more.

The bill has a three-year phase-in and some limitations to keep India and China visa seekers from completely dominating the green card process. But even with the measured phase-in, the measure will affect other countries.

For instance, in one analysis shared by a lobbyist familiar with the bill, the Philippines now accounts for about 7,000 people a year who receive employment-based green cards. That will be cut to 3,000 in the first year if the bill becomes law, and to 2,000 in the two following years. As a result, the backlog for employment-based visas in the Philippines will grow and overall wait times increase.

The bill envisions a phased-in approach with the idea that by the end of the three-year period the needs of those who have been waiting the longest will have been addressed. The green card system will then operate globally on more of a first-come, first-served basis.

The legislation was introduced by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and was backed by the committee chair, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

The two most commonly used employment-based green card categories are the EB-2 visa, which is for people with an advanced degree and five years of experience in the profession. The EB-3 includes professionals whose jobs require at least a bachelor's degree. The number of visas in that category is limited to about to about 40,000 each.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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