Resolving green card backlog ‘absolutely critical’ to maintaining US tech leadership

A prolonged backlog in processing green cards is hindering the ability of the U.S. to compete with other nations for top tech talent, according to one Google executive.

“The ability to attract and retain talent is absolutely critical to America’s technology leadership. Companies like Google depend on having green cards and visas to be able to bring in the world’s best computer scientists, the best software engineers,” said Karan Bhatia, vice president of public affairs and public policy, speaking to Yahoo Finance Live.

The processing delays stem in part from restrictions and staffing shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, and restrictive immigration laws passed under the Trump Administration.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16:  Vice President for Government Affairs & Public Policy at Google Karan Bhatia testifies during a hearing before the Constitution Subcommittee of Senate Judiciary Committee July 16, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing on

Vice President for Government Affairs & Public Policy at Google Karan Bhatia testifies during a hearing before the Constitution Subcommittee of Senate Judiciary Committee July 16, 2019 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The subcommittee held a hearing on “Google and Censorship through Search Engines.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

While the State Department estimates roughly 262,000 employment-based green cards were made available under the last fiscal year limit, 66,500 went unused, with immigration agencies struggling to keep up with demand. Another 280,000 are expected to be available this year. Employment-based green cards that are not granted within the year do not carry over into the next year.

Bhatia said that has left hundreds of workers in limbo at Google (GOOG, GOOGL), uncertain about their ability to remain in their jobs. Many arrived in the U.S. on H-1B worker visas, designed to allow American firms to recruit skilled foreign labor. Workers are granted a maximum six-year work visa, but must apply for green cards to live and work permanently in the U.S., once the terms expire.

“The challenge is holding on to that talent and being able to really enable the country as a whole to benefit from the creations that they were going to bring forward,” Bhatia said.

The contribution of immigration to population and labor force growth slowed meaningfully in 2020. (Chart: Goldman Sachs)

The contribution of immigration to population and labor force growth slowed meaningfully in 2020. (Chart: Goldman Sachs)

Major tech firms have pressed the Biden administration to streamline the visa process for months, with Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook arguing in a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security that the “delays have created uncertainty for major employers and caused anxiety for our employees and their families.” While Bhatia did not disclose the specific number of Google employees who have applied for visas, Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, told Axios just 13% of candidate applications filed since October of 2020 have been approved so far.

Bhatia said the ability to recruit skilled workers from foreign countries remains critical to companies like Google parent Alphabet, and its ability to remain competitive in a global race for talent.

“The reality is that these visas are going for the top level talent around the world. These are computer scientists. These are people generating the next generation of artificial intelligence technology. We, as a country, have every interest in making sure that those people continue to innovate, continue to create jobs and new products here in the United States,” Bhatia said.

The immigration process has received even more scrutiny in the face of a tight labor market. In a recent note, Goldman Sachs cited reduced immigration as playing a role in the country’s growing labor force participation gap. While foreign-born workers accounted for nearly 60% of the growth in the U.S. labor force from 2010 to 2018, growth in those same workers slowed to roughly 100,000 between 2019 and 2021, according to Goldman. That shrank the labor force by 1.6 million, the research noted.

Bhatia said Google is in active conversations with lawmakers, urging Congress to pass the Equal Access to Green Cards for Legal Employment Act, which seeks to phase out caps on the number of green cards that can be issued by individual countries.

“[The uncertainty] becomes a challenge for American companies to be confident in what that labor force and labor flow is going to look like,” said Bhatia. “This all comes down to global competitiveness. How can we be at the forefront for what is increasingly a competitive market for international talent?”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita

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