A New U.S. Immigration Law Would Hurt Iranians the Most

H.R. 392 will help skilled immigrants from India jump the green-card queue—at the expense of everyone else.

Angirekula Sreekanth poses for a photograph with a copy of his U.S. visa and those of his relatives at the Chilkur Balaji Temple in Rangareddy district, near Hyderabad, on April 29, 2017.
Angirekula Sreekanth poses for a photograph with a copy of his U.S. visa and those of his relatives at the Chilkur Balaji Temple in Rangareddy district, near Hyderabad, on April 29, 2017. (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)

A new amendment to U.S. immigration legislation may soon become law and significantly change the employment-based immigration landscape of the United States for good. If that happens, in addition to hurting America in several ways, it will have major repercussions for immigrants from all countries. But with the combined effect of U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban, Iranian immigrants are likely to have it worst.

The legislation in question is the now-infamous H.R. 392, or the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017, which has become a hot topic of discussion among skilled immigrants, many of whom have been calling on politicians to oppose it. The legislation aims to eliminate the per-country numerical limitation for employment-based immigration. At the moment, each country has a numerical limit of 7 percent or 9,800 of the 140,000 green cards issued per year, regardless of its population. The bill intends to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate limitations relating to place of birth.

The bill will therefore prove a boon almost exclusively to employment-based immigrants from India and China; smaller countries will suffer. According to data published by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), 309,986 or 73.9 percent of the total of 419,637 H-1B visa (which allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations) petitions registered in the fiscal year 2018 belonged to citizens of India. Together with China, whose employment-based immigrants to the United States constituted 47,172 or 11.2 percent of total petitions in the same period, the two countries accounted for an overwhelming majority.

H.R. 392 has been bankrolled mainly by the Indian-American community, especially the nonprofit Immigration Voice. The support is spearheaded by tech companies like Amazon, Alphabet, Hewlett Packard, and Microsoft, among others. It did not come as a surprise that Cognizant Technology Solutions was also a main backer of the initiative, since it grabbed the highest number of approved H-1B petitions among all companies in the fiscal year 2017, according to USCIS. The H1-B is a temporary fix for skilled foreign workers in the United States; the green card is a permanent one.

Proponents mainly argue that removing the per-country numerical cap can solve a major backlog problem that is exacerbated by the country caps and adversely affects Indian employment-based immigrants the most because so many of them are seeking permanent residency. More than 306,000 Indians and 67,000 Chinese immigrants were waiting in the employment-based green-card queue, according to USCIS figures reported in May. If it becomes law, the bill will most probably mean that the majority of employment-based green cards issued in the next decade will go to people from India.

On one level, this could result in added wage suppression and potential job loss for Americans working in the tech sector. This possibility is strengthened by the fact that the Indian backlog problem is self-sustaining: immigrants with H-1B status are usually unable to switch jobs for fear of losing their place in line, allowing opportunistic employers to take advantage of the situation and enjoy cheap labor for years, even as their immigrant workforce may have become deserving of several pay raises.

But more importantly, H.R. 392 means systemic bias toward employment-based immigrants from every other country. Yes, there is no denying that the current system is very hard on legal working immigrants from India, and to a lesser degree China, who are forced to wait for long periods; no one exactly knows how long they have to wait to receive permanent U.S. residency, but the Cato Institute used USCIS data to project a 150-year waiting period for Indian EB-2 visa holders (those with advanced degrees or exceptional abilities) because the number of people applying for those visas is much larger than other categories.

However, if the majority of employment-based green cards issued in the next decade go to people from India and China, it will mean easing the burden on one or two countries by transferring it onto the shoulders of thousands of immigrants from dozens of other countries, which hardly seems like a fair and logical solution. U.S. lawmakers would be better advised to pursue wider immigration reform that does not brazenly punish one or several groups to the benefit of others.

That was also the advice given by the Canadian American Bar Association (CABA), which on Dec. 12 submitted a letter to the U.S. Congress opposing H.R. 392. CABA said the legislation “threatens to impede the free movement of highly skilled Canadian workers” and “cause harm to American businesses operating in cross-border industries.” If significantly more visas and green cards are prioritized for employment-based immigrants from one nation, those in other countries and their related industries will suffer.

What is more, eliminating the per-country numerical cap may further alienate international students, some of whom have already started looking at alternatives to U.S. universities due to Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric. The flow of foreign college students coming to the United States slowed for the second year in a row in 2017 and dropped by nearly 7 percent compared to the previous year, according to the 2018 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, an annual survey taken by the Institute of International Education.

Signing H.R. 392 into law will signal to more foreign students that even if they make it to the United States and contribute for years, they might not be welcome to stay or they will be trapped in the same job for fear of losing their place in the very long queue. This uncertainty will discourage qualified international doctoral students and scholars from applying to U.S. universities. It could also hurt the U.S. health sector, which relies heavily on immigrant nurses and caretakers.

Unfortunately, citizens of Iran will bear the brunt of the law due to the Trump travel ban, which primarily targets Iranians. In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Trump’s ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran. The travel ban alone has separated many families in the short few months it has been in effect. But if coupled with the changes envisioned as part of H.R. 392, it is guaranteed to create many more heartbreaking stories.

“Many Iranian students come here for higher education with the ultimate goal of applying for a green card,” said 34-year-old Saeid, who currently lives in Virginia and asked that his full name not be used. “The travel ban has restricted many families from visiting, and we can’t go to Iran either because we have single-entry visas, so this effectively forces us to stay here until we have a green card.”

He traveled from Iran to the United States in 2009 and completed his doctorate in mechanical engineering in 2014. He has been in the process of obtaining a green card for roughly three years, but said he knows people who have waited for seven years, eager to see their loved ones again. That door may be closing, because Indians would leapfrog Iranians—and almost everyone else in the queue—leaving them with the impossible choice of giving everything up and going back to Iran, or remaining in limbo for an unknown period of time. And worse, riding out the prolonged waiting period may not even be possible, as their working visas may expire—meaning that they would be illegally overstaying their visas. And once they have left, returning would be virtually impossible.

Ehsan, a 27-year-old doctoral student studying computer science in California, also refrains from visiting family and attending international conferences for fear of going through the visa renewal process, which he says is now more stressful than ever for Iranians.

“I haven’t seen my sister for more than five years because I couldn’t go and she couldn’t come,” he said. “But amid all our homesickness, me and many others like me live with the hope of getting a green card—when we make enough progress in our research to prove its usefulness for the United States.”

If passed by Congress and signed into law, H.R. 392 would change everything for them. In late August, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a Washington-based nonprofit organization, made a similar case. NIAC sent a letter to corporations that are lobbying for H.R. 392, arguing it will risk creating a monopoly over the green card process and exacerbate the impact of the Trump travel ban for Iranians. It will thereby help advance Trump’s stated goal of a “shutdown” for Muslims entering the country, the council said.

When H.R. 392 was introduced as a stand-alone bill in 2017 by Representative Jason Chaffetz, it received strong backing by 329 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. However, the bill was later attached to H.R. 6776, the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2019, to have a better shot of passing. Now, it is tangled in a partisan battle over Trump’s emphasis on securing funding for his border wall and the prospects of a government shutdown.

On Dec. 6, the U.S. Congress approved a two-week stopgap spending bill to avert a government shutdown that extends funding through Dec. 21 for several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security. So a decision about H.R. 392, which is now tied to much larger matters, may be imminent, potentially clearing its path toward becoming law. If it passes, it will deprive the United States of of a diverse pool of highly-skilled working immigrants and potentially jeopardize cross-border industries and trade with Canada.

Maziar Motamedi is a journalist based in Tehran who has written for several Iranian and foreign publications. Twitter: @MotamediMaziar

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