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Harmonizing US Immigration: Family and Employment Green Cards

WASHINGTON, DC – The United States immigration system prioritizes family reunification, even within the employment-based (EB) green card categories. According to current interpretations of US immigration law, family members of immigrant workers must utilize EB green cards. This approach is not unique to the US; however, among OECD countries, such as Japan, Spain, and Ireland, the US stands out with a greater number of immigrants entering visa categories as workers rather than family members.

Notably, the disparity is more pronounced in the United States compared to other nations. Instead of having a distinct green card category for the spouses and children of workers, these family members receive green cards that would otherwise have been allocated to skilled workers. There is a need for reform in this aspect without diminishing family-based immigration.

In 2022, 55 percent of EB green cards were allocated to the family members of workers, while the remaining 45 percent went to the workers themselves. This distribution mirrors figures from 2020 and 2021. It’s worth mentioning that some family members receiving EB green cards are workers themselves, and many of them possess high skill levels due to the tendency for skilled individuals to marry each other.

Another noteworthy point is that although Congress set a cap of 140,000 for the EB green card category annually, the federal government issued 270,284 in 2022. This excess issuance is possible because immigration law permits unused green cards from other categories to be redirected to applicants in the EB category. In 2023, nearly 60,000 additional green cards from the family-based category will be reallocated to the EB green card categories through this process.

EB green cards are divided into five categories based on the type of worker or investor and their accompanying family members. EB-1 is for workers of extraordinary ability, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational firm managers and executives. EB-2 is for professional workers with advanced degrees and those with exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business. EB-3 covers skilled workers, professionals, and other workers. EB-4 is for religious workers, certain broadcasters, some foreign employees of the U.S. government, and others. EB-5 is designated for a specific class of investors. Family members are included in all EB categories by convention, not by statute or regulation.

Recognizing the importance of family-based immigration for social, economic, and ethical reasons, Congress should consider either exempting family members from the numerical cap of EB green cards or establishing a new category for them. This would prevent a reduction in the number of workers by the same amount as family members. By taking such measures, an additional 147,017 immigrant workers could have obtained a green card in 2022, resulting in a 120 percent increase without adjusting the cap number for that green card category.

In 2022, 82 percent of those who received an EB green card, or 221,373 individuals, were already legally residing in the United States. This marks a decrease from 2021 when 92 percent represented adjustments of status, indicating individuals already legally present who transitioned from another visa type, such as an H-1B or an F visa, to an EB green card.

Exempting these adjustments of status cases from the EB green card cap could substantially enhance the number of highly skilled workers entering from abroad, increasing the figure by a factor of 4.5, from 48,905 to the statutory cap.

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