Every year, the U.S. sets aside a specific number of available green cards for individuals from all around the world. However, over the years, various administrative complications have left hundreds of thousands of green cards unissued. In addition, existing numerical limitations and per-country caps on green cards have only accentuated a backlog of over 5 million. To tackle the backlog – and consequently trigger economic growth – policy analysts and immigration advocates have suggested recapturing the unused green cards accumulated over the past three decades, going back to 1992. This fact sheet explains, in simple terms, what green card recapture means.
What is a green card?
Having a “green card” is the colloquial name for lawful permanent residence in the United States. A lawful permanent resident (LPR) is a foreign-born person who has been granted the ability to live, work, and receive certain government benefits in the U.S. indefinitely. Becoming an LPR is a necessary step in the naturalization process.
Unused green cards are those that have been left unissued due to bureaucratic delays and slow USCIS processing. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic, travel bans, and other administrative difficulties have led to tens of thousands of green cards going unused in recent years.
How many green cards does the U.S. allocate annually?
Every year, the U.S. sets aside 226,000 family-preference green cards for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens; 140,000 employment-based green cards for skilled, unskilled, and professional workers, as well as investors; and 50,000 diversity green cards for individuals from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.
Are there per-country caps on green cards?
Yes, in addition to the numerical limit, there are per-country caps on green cards. This means that, under existing federal law, individuals from any one country cannot be issued more than seven percent of the total number of green cards each year. While seemingly reasonable, in practice, this means that individuals from countries with high numbers of green card applicants, such as India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines, face backlogs lasting years or even decades.
Can Congress fix the green card backlog?
Yes. In addition to increasing numerical limitations or modifying per-country caps, Congress can alternatively address the green card backlog through legislation to direct the executive branch to recapture hundreds of thousands of unused green cards.
Green card recapture is a simple strategy that would allocate the total number of unused green cards since 1992 to applicants waiting in the backlog without increasing numerical limitations or per-country caps. This strategy has the advantage of addressing the existing green card backlog through a mechanism that received bipartisan support in Congress in 2000 and 2005. This strategy also avoids a contentious fight over increasing immigration levels since it reallocates unused green cards to meet levels set by previous Congresses.
Why is the green card recapture vital for the U.S.?
A recent report by the Niskanen Center indicates that if the federal government recaptures 231,000 unused employment-based green cards, the policy would add $216 billion to GDP over ten years. If it recaptures 940,000 unused employment-based and family-preference green cards, the policy would add $815 billion to GDP over ten years.
Have any bills been introduced this Congress that provide for the recapture of unused green cards?
Yes. As of October 1, 2021, two bills have been introduced in the 117th Congress that would recapture unused green cards:
- The S. Citizenship Act of 2021, introduced in the House by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California) and in the Senate by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), would recapture over 940,000 unused employment-based and family preference green cards. The bill aims to recapture green cards lost to bureaucratic delays since 1992, including spouses and children of green card holders as immediate family members and would increase per-country caps for family-based immigration.
- The House Judiciary Committee’s legislative proposal to comply with the reconciliation directive included in section 2002 of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2022 (S. Con. Res. 14) would recapture approximately 500,000 employment-based, family-based, and diversity green cards.
 Both the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 and the House Judiciary Committee’s legislative proposal to comply with the reconciliation directive included in section 2002 of the Concurrent Resolution on the Budget for Fiscal Year 2022 (S. Con. Res. 14) contain recapture provisions that go back to 1992, representing 30 years of green cards (1992-2021).
 The slow process is due, in part, to the fact that the D.H.S. does not have an online immigration filing system, which in turn forces USCIS staff to manually enter each applicant’s information into its system and issue a receipt.