Mike Lee Teams Up With Kamala Harris to Scrap Green Card Caps

Currently, no more than 7 percent of green cards handed out in a single year can go to immigrants from the same country.


Erik McGregor/Sipa USA/Newscom

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump ad-libbed a line about wanting legal immigrants to enter the country in "the largest numbers ever."

The first two years of his presidency might make you question the sincerity of that statement. But if Trump's telling the truth, Sens. Mike Lee (R–Utah) and Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) have a bill for him. The two lawmakers announced a plan today that would remove the annual per-country caps for employment-based green cards; it would also raise the cap on family-based green cards from 7 percent to 15 percent. While the Fairness for Highly Skilled Immigrants Act would not lift the overall caps on how many visas the United States grants in a single year, it would remove at least one major impediment for immigrants coming from places where many people waiting in line.

"Immigrants should not be penalized due to their country of origin," Lee said in a statement.

The existing caps apply to both family-sponsored and employment-based visas. No more than 7 percent of either type of visa may be issued to natives of any one independent country in a fiscal year, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). Given the current overall caps on both types of green cards, that 7 percent per-country limit effectively means that no more than 25,620 immigrants from a single country can come to the United States in a single year.

"We must do more to eliminate discriminatory backlogs and facilitate family unity so that high-skilled immigrants are not vulnerable to exploitation and can stay in the U.S. and continue to contribute to the economy," said Harris in a statement.

More than 300,000 would-be immigrants from India and more than 67,000 Chinese are currently on the waiting list for green cards, according to a 2018 CIS report.

David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, points out that it's not uncommon for immigrants from India to wait up to a decade for a green card, while Chinese immigrants frequently wait for three years or more. But if you're lucky enough to be born in a different country, the caps mean you can move more quickly to the front of the line.

The per-country limits were imposed in 1924, and were a direct descendants of earlier laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act that are now regarded as outright racist. They were "explicitly efforts at racial engineering," writes Bier. Even though the arguments have changed, "the end result is the same, and this type of government intervention is as inappropriate now as it was then."

There's not a lot of low-hanging fruit in immigration policy these days, but removing the per-country green card caps might be one of them. Last year, a House bill to remove the caps for employment visas garnered a whopping 329 cosponsors but did not receive a vote. This year's Lee/Harris bill already has more than a dozen cosponsors in the Senate.

The only meaningful opposition the idea seems to come from immigration restrictionists like the Center for Immigration Studies, which says lifting the caps will allow greater levels of Indian immigration and create more competition with U.S. workers for tech jobs. But as long as the overall visa limits remain in place, then those concerns will be muted. (Of course, I think those should be lifted as well.)

More high-profile immigration debates will surely continue to roil Congress—which is currently under pressure to approve funding for Trump's border wall or face the threat of another government shutdown—but hopefully that won't preclude the possibility of passing a relatively simple fix to help more people come to the United States legally.

"Immigration is often a contentious issue," says Lee, "but we should not delay progress in areas where there is bipartisan consensus just because we have differences in a other areas."