Contentious Immigration Bill Divides Student Communities

By Eric Fan.

A Republican senator from Georgia, David Perdue, became a fortuitous hero for some foreign communities when he stepped on the Senate floor last Thursday and stopped an attempt to fast-track a bill that would drastically change the country’s immigration system.

Among those celebrating were not citizens from India, who stood to benefit from this bill.

Each year, the United States issues 140,000 green cards to foreign workers who are seeking permanent residency through employment. Under a current “per-country cap” law, applicants from any single country cannot receive more than 7 percent of the total amount before the rest are distributed among citizens from other countries.

The cap was designed to ensure diversity among green card recipients, but it disadvantages immigrants from more populous countries like India and China. According to a recent study by the Cato Institute, Indian applicants face an average waiting time of 24 to 36 years, compared to 5 to 6 years for Chinese applicants and 0 to 1 year for everyone else.[i]

The “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act” would eliminate the per-country cap and evaluate all applicants on a first-come basis, effectively giving priority to the more than 640,000 Indian applicants who have been stuck in a backlog.

Immigration Voice, a California-based nonprofit representing Indian workers in America, has been one of the strongest advocates for this bill. “Keep calling Senator Perdue’s office and ask him to lift his hold on the Lee-Harris merit-based immigration bill,” it stated on social media, mobilizing its 18,300 followers on Twitter with constant messages and giant red signs showing an exclamation mark.[ii]

But the bill contains no merit-based reform, nor would it change the total number of green cards available each year. It would simply distribute the waiting period for all applicants more evenly. In the meantime, almost all employment-based green cards for the next 6 to 7 years will go to Indian applicants, before the backlog is cleared.

“I don’t think there is a direct impact on international students since not everyone will work in United State,” said Albert Li, an Emory University student from China, “but for sure this bill will damage the incentive for students from China and other countries.”

Indian students from whom I requested comment all expressed support for the bill, but they have all refused to go on the record.

Last year, Indian nationals held 74 percent of the H-1B visa, a temporary work visa that often leads to immigrant visas like EB-2 and EB-3. Currently, the per-country cap has restricted the Indian share of those employment-based immigrant visas to about 20 percent, which is already the biggest share by a longshot. If the “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act” becomes law, applicants from India are expected to dominate the green card system even more.

“What’s next? Job outsourcing to India will continue and the waiting time will start to go up again.” said Li, who described the bill as no more than a “green card redistribution” scheme. “This bill encourages talents from one country, but strongly discourages talents from all other countries.”

The bill has also drawn criticism from some immigration lawyers, including Tammy Fox-Isicoff, a board member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who told the Miami Herald that “[the backlog] should be dealt with by enlarging quotas or exempting those deemed extraordinary or in the national interest, not by destroying immigration for the rest of the world.”[iii]

The current quotas for employment-based green cards were set by Congress in 1990. Since then, the U.S. economy has more than doubled and the U.S. population has grown by a third. However, American immigration law has failed to keep up with the changes.

Some experts have argued that Congress should explicitly stop the USCIS from counting spouses and children of the primary applicants against the quotas. “If the administration had not counted those [derivative] applicants, the backlog would have never developed at all,” said David Bier, a policy analyst at the CATO Institute.[iv]

“The immigration system should be built around the principle of recognizing the potential in each incoming immigrant and what these people can bring into the country,” said Julia Wang, another student from China, “and to allow one country to monopolize the system for nearly a decade is simply unfair.”

A similar version of the “Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act” has already passed the House in July. The Senate is expected to vote on it again this week.

Eric Fan is an international student from China at Emory University. He formerly interned with the Carter Center China Program. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of The Carter Center or its associates.



[i] Bier, David. “Immigration Wait Times from Quotas Have Doubled: Green Card Backlogs Are Long, Growing, and Inequitable.” Cato Institute. June 18, 2019.

[ii] Immigration Voice. “GEORGIA – Have You Called Senator Perdue Yet? ” Twitter. Accessed September 25, 2019.

[iii] Madan, Monique O. “If Passed, This Bill Will End Hispanic Workforce Immigration.” Miami Herald. Accessed September 25, 2019.

[iv] Bier, David. “Immigration Wait Times from Quotas Have Doubled: Green Card Backlogs Are Long, Growing, and Inequitable.” Cato Institute. June 18, 2019.