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Still no green cards for legal immigrants in the near future

By Amanda Schuster 
February 2006

Immigration has been a hot topic in American news recently, with debates raging over what to do with the growing population of foreign workers already living illegally in the United States, and how to keep more from coming in.  

The controversy over illegal immigration is glaring, yet there are a number of other immigration issues that have failed to capture the public’s (and the politicians’) attention in the same way. On November 25, 2005, the Seattle Times published an article outlining a current backlog in the green-card application procedure, making it virtually impossible for certain legal immigrants to get jobs anytime in the near future. 

Currently, H-4 visa holders are allowed to live and study in the United States, but not to work. H-4 visa holders are the spouses of foreign workers who have met certain criteria in order to be able work in the United States (visa H1-B). These couples are allowed to apply for permanent residency, at which time the dependent spouse would receive a work permit as well. 

Unfortunately, even if the couple can get an H1-B visa (a difficult process in itself – all of the 91,000 visas allotted for the 2006 fiscal year have already been issued), it can take a long time – too long for some – to get permission for both partners to hold a job. 

Lornet Tunrbull of the Times explains the backlog as follows: in 1998, the number of allotted H1-B immigrants per year was raised from 65,000 to 198,000 in response to a worker shortage. In 2003, it was dropped back to 65,000. Today, that means that the number of visa holders seeking permanent residency is multiplying, creating more work than it seems Citizenship and Immigration Services can handle. 

The result? A potential four- to six-year wait for foreign spouses who want to work in the United States. 

Various problems, affecting both immigrants and American citizens, are arising as a result of the current situation. Seattle immigration lawyer Jeffrey Ouimet acknowledges that the H-worker program can be a great arrangement for some couples, especially when dependent spouses want the opportunity to go to school in the United States. For most couples and families, and even for American companies and non-immigrant American citizens, however, the program seems to be causing more difficulty. 

“The lack of available visas means that a lot of companies cannot hire the skilled workers they need in the US,” Ouimet says. “Thus, what was designed as a measure to protect US workers is, in fact, leading to more outsourcing as companies are moving operations to where the skilled workers are.” 

Corporate outsourcing has been a touchy subject both nationally and internationally over the past few years, and the idea that immigration issues could exacerbate instead of solve the problem is unsettling. 

On a more personal level, the immigrant families themselves often face a dilemma. “A couple must decide whether to put one spouse’s career on hold in order to allow the other spouse to work in the US,” says Ouimet. A difficult decision, made even harder by the amount of time the dependent spouse would spend out of work. 

In the Times’ November article, Turnbull offered a small shred of hope in the form of a possible increase in employment-based visas to be voted on by Congress as an attachment on a $39.7 billion federal budget bill. 

The provisions allotted another 30,000 H1-B visas per year, and 90,000 additional employment-based green cards (which would help alleviate the strain on the foreign workers currently seeking permanent residency). They were dropped from the bill at Christmas.


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