Over the past few days many articles have been published to look back on the year’s biggest immigration stories. I liked Leslie Berestein Rojas’ Top 5, and also ImmigrationProf’s Top 10, among others. However, if you look through the lists you will see one thing in common: illegal immigration issues dominated the entire 2011.
It is not that the authors are biased. With the Supreme Court’s decision to review Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070, Obama Adminitration’s record-setting year for deportation, and the roller coaster ride of the DREAM Act, it is hard to look elsewhere. It is simply a reflection of the fact that legal immigration, once again, was thrown into the back seat for much of 2011.
But there are things happening. And below are my picks for the top 5 stories for legal immigrants:
1. H.R. 3012 and Efforts to Eliminate Per-Country Limit
On 11/29/2011, the House passed H.R. 3012, the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act by a vote of 389-15. The bill aims to eliminate the employment-based per-country annual cap, currently at 7%, and raise the family-sponsored cap to 15%. If enacted, H.R. 3012 would re-shuffle the waiting lines for green cards, effectively altering the current system in which EB immigrants born in India and China have to wait much longer
than people from other countries. With such a strong bipartisan support, people had high expectations that the measure would sail through the Senate. But Senator Grassley (R-IA) poured cold water on the crowd right away, by placing a hold on the bill the next day. He was “concerned that it [H.R. 3012] does nothing to better protect Americans at home who seek high-skilled jobs during this time of record high unemployment.” He didn’t mention that the bill would not increase the total number of immigrants currently authorized by law.
On 12/15/2011, Senator Grassley offered an amendment making dramatic changes to the bill. Since then, it has been mostly silence, although it is safe to speculate that a lot of behind-the-door negotiations must be happening. The fate of H.R. 3012 depends on these politicians’ arm wrestling, and as it stands now, the outcome is anybody’s guess.
It is worth mentioning that not all EB immigrants support the bill. EB2 applicants from countries other than India and China, for example, may prefer the existing system because they don’t have to wait at all. With H.R. 3012, they would have to wait in the same line with Indian and Chinese citizens for a visa number. Fair? – that is another story.
2. Green Card Lottery Blunder
In early May, the Department of State notified 22,000 people worldwide that they had won the green card lottery, which offers a quick and easy path to U.S. permanent residence. On May 13, they were told the results were invalid, and the drawing would be held again.
DOS blamed a computer software glitch that caused 90% of the lottery winners to be selected from the first two days of registration, rather than the entire 30-day period.
Disappointed and shocked, the early winners rushed to facebook and other online forums in an attempt to persuade DOS to honor their initial selection. A class-action lawsuit was also filed on behalf of the applicants. All efforts failed, however, and a second drawing was conducted in the summer.
3. Rapid Visa Bulletin Movement
There are two stories actually.
For EB2 India and China, all is good. The visa bulletin cutoff dates jumped from 4/15/2007 all the way to 1/1/2009, over the last four months of 2011. Given the long black-out period following the 2007 visa bulletin fiasco, this is more phenomenal than it appears. In addition to long-awaited green card approvals, many people were finally eligible to submit I-485 applications, along with employment authorization and travel documents.
Unfortunately, EB3 continues to be in limbo. Most EB3 categories advanced only a few months for the entire year. Without additional visa numbers due to “spill-over,” it is hard to imagine the situation would improve anytime soon. New legislation, especially those that could potentially recapture unused visa numbers or even increase the total, are certainly much needed. But does anyone realistically expect much, given 2012 being an election year?
4. Renewed Focus on Immigrant Investors and Entrepreneurers
The EB5 investor visa has been around for 20 years, but 2011 witnessed rejuvenated interest from the U.S. government and private businesses.
On May 19, USCIS outlined a series of policy enhancements to make the EB-5 program more attractive to foreign investors. Among them, a premium processing option and a direct email communication venue for applicants and petitioners.
On August 2, USCIS unveiled a series of initiatives to promote the so-called “start-up visas” which would allow entrepreneurs to obtain H-1B visas and EB-2 green card classification. Several policy, operational and outreach efforts were also outlined as part of the White House’s “Startup America” campaign.
A slew of commercial EB5 and regional center Websites popped up one after another on the Internet this year, as businesses try to seize the opportunity by acting as bridges between foreign investors and investment projects in the U.S.
5. Ongoing Digital Transformation
USCIS has been undertaking a multi-year initiative to move immigration services from a paper-based system to a new electronic, account-based system. Over the next several years, USCIS will deploy a simplified, web-based system that will allow customers to apply online and also easily track their case status.
The first release of the new system was originally planned for December 2011, using the stand-alone Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status (Form I-539). But the launch was delayed due to the need for more “post-development testing.” Despite the setback, the trend toward digital is inevitable. DOS’ Non-immigrant visa application is now almost entirely online (DS-160), the Green Card Lottery is all electronic (registration, status check and notification), the paper-based Advance Parole can now be built into the EAD card, and so on. Hopefully, 2012 will bring us one step closer to the digital world, making everybody’s life easier.