Every year, thousands of foreign workers apply for a U.S. employment-based green card that, if issued, would allow them to live and work permanently in the United States. Despite demand constantly exceeding congressionally imposed caps and a backlog that stretches decades, almost 80,000 employment-based green cards were wasted last year, and current law prohibits United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) from recovering the unused green cards.

While it is easy to assume the loss of these green cards only harms foreign workers, there is growing evidence that American consumers and the tech field will suffer considerably from lost green cards. To ensure the tech field can access much-needed foreign talent and continue to provide consumers with innovative goods and services, Congress must pass legislation to recapture any unused green cards.  

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), Congress authorizes just 140,000 employment-based green cards every year. The INA, however, does not allow any unused green cards to be used in the next year, even though many foreign workers now face a wait that can span decades or even lifetimes. Matters are further complicated by a per-country cap that does not allow any one country to receive more than 7% of green cards, meaning workers from China and India face substantially longer waits than workers from countries where demand for employment-based green cards is lower.

Due to limitations imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, it is widely believed that in 2021 USCIS could not process 80,000 applications, meaning they will vanish.

Congress is currently considering several bills that would allow any USCIS to recapture any unused green cards and issue them the following year. The House and Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, are considering Senator Tillis’ and Miller-Meeks’ Preserving Employment Visas Act that, if enacted, would allow USCIS to recapture up to 71,000 unissued green cards.

Speaking after Rep. Miller-Meeks introduced his bill to the House of Representatives, he stated that recapturing unused green cards would “would fuel the American recovery from COVID-19, contribute to long-term economic growth, and provide relief for healthcare providers by reducing the green card backlog.”

For the tech sector, recapturing unused green cards would help alleviate the shortage of qualified workers. Back in 2016, the American Action Forum estimated that by 2024, the “U.S. will be short 1.1. million STEM workers,” with the health sector particularly vulnerable. Despite this significant shortage, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that almost half of all international students, around 497,413, are enrolled in STEM subjects. These foreign STEM students represent a pool of talent that could help alleviate the projected shortage of STEM workers. Without these workers, American companies will be prevented from developing and producing innovative goods and services that benefit American consumers.

Studies also show that foreign workers are innovators at a time when American innovation is declining. For example, back in 2018, the CBO warned “the rate at which firms were created decreased from 10 percent of all businesses in 1982 to 8 percent in 2018, and the share of employment belonging to new firms (those less than five years old) fell from 14 percent to 9 percent over that same period.” 

As domestic innovation wanes, foreign workers have “founded many companies in the United States that have increased innovation, job creation, and economic growth.” In fact, the Center for American Entrepreneurship estimated in 2017 that half of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. In 2018, the National Foundation for American Policy estimated that “immigrants founded or co-founded 55% of the United States’ billion-dollar companies.”

Stanford University also highlighted the importance of foreign talent to innovation and entrepreneurship. Stanford’s research has shown that while immigrants only make up 16 percent of inventors, they have been responsible for “30 percent of aggregate U.S. innovation since 1976,” helping develop everything from autonomous cars, social media sites, and biotech products to cell phones, all goods that have enhanced consumer welfare for Americans.

Allowing USCIS to recapture unused green cards could allow the next Elon Musk (Tesla CEO) or Satya Nadella (Microsoft CEO) to enter the country and develop the next great piece of technology or service for American consumers.

While recapturing unused green cards will not eliminate the backlog of employment-based green cards, it could provide some relief for the technology sector, which faces a shortage of workers. Moreover, recapturing any unused green cards could also reverse the worrying trend of declining innovation that will deny American consumers access to the next great piece of technology. Congress must act, or consumers and innovation lose out.