An easy fix for Obama to ease immigration backlog

An international visitor arriving at Washington Dulles Airport is fingerprinted as part of a system to track undocumented immigrants and prevent visa overstays. (Photo by Dept. of Homeland Security)
An international visitor arriving at Washington Dulles Airport is fingerprinted as part of a system to track undocumented immigrants and prevent visa overstays. (Photo by Dept. of Homeland Security)

Last week, President Obama reiterated his plans to take executive action on a range of immigration matters following broad election-day defeat by Democrats in Congress.

I believe the President has a rare opportunity to address many of the cracks in the nation’s immigration system, even if his executive pen won’t allow a comprehensive overhaul in the way Congressional action would.

One place he might start is with approximately 220,000 permanent resident green cards (visas) that went unused between 1992 and 1997 because of low demand, according to Charlie Oppenheim, chief of Visa Control and Reporting with U.S. Department of State, .

In 1990, the current Immigrant and Nationality Act (INA) was signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. Total immigration was increased from 500,000 — where it had been set in 1965 — to 700,000. The Act also created new categories for family-based and employment-based green cards and established a brand new category called the diversity visa.

For fiscal year 1992, the slate was wiped clean. There was no backlog of immigrants waiting for green cards to become available. New visa caps were also established and a complex new formula was created, requiring all unused visas from the current fiscal year to be recaptured for use during the subsequent fiscal year. That led to a continuous recirculation, with the number of unused green cards rolling over year after year.

During the 1992-1997 period, before the dot com boom, demand for employment-based visas was low and, as a result, a significant number of visas went unused. Inter-agency communications were not as efficient as they are today which could be one of the reasons why these visas were unused.

Now, I believe the Obama Administration has an opportunity to assign the nearly quarter million unused visas to help address some of the nation’s immigration problems, without depending on a Congress that appears to lack the courage to do so.


Since the law already allows the use of unused visas and there is nothing preventing their rollover, then in my opinion, an executive order for allocating the visa isn’t necessary. What is necessary is an order to decide how those visas might be allocated.

The administration could split the unused visas equally between family-based and employment-based visa seekers, or divide them based on the percentage of total visas each category represents. Or, considering the severe shortage of high-skilled and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) workers affecting many U.S. employers, the administration could assign the visas to those queued up in the system and awaiting employment-based visas.

This could accomplish a few things including huge economic benefits to the country and our region. It could immediately reduce the shortage for skilled workers so that companies such as Microsoft and Amazon with tens of thousands of job openings at any given time, can fill some of those jobs. The economy of Washington state would benefit greatly from this as many employers, especially technology companies, struggle to find qualified skilled workers.

The administration could also allow would-be entrepreneurs currently “in line” and waiting for visas, to start their companies now, creating jobs and helping the local and national economies.

The political gridlock will likely continue to block immigration reform in the near future. For the President, momentum and opportunity like this will not come again soon. Therefore, it is imperative that the president makes as a big an impact as possible. Recapturing unused visas will make such an impact.


  1. Tahmina, great idea. Do you know if something of the sort is being considered? Meaning, if within Obama’s plans there is something about increasing the number of visas for family-based categories?

  2. Is there any hope for spouses of legal permanent resident to be classified as immediate relative in this executive action process? In our case, it has taken about 2 years and we are still waiting for husband and wife to live in the United States. The process is stalled and making us to wait for the priority date to be current. Please advise.

  3. Hi Mauricio, so sorry for the incredibly delayed response! I didn’t see these comments until today. I don’t know if this was being considered to be honest. It should have been. The President cannot increase visa numbers because that requires creation of new laws which only Congress can do. However, he could order to recapture unused visas because the law allows the roll-over of visa. Unfortunately, I don’t know if we will see action on this during the remaining time of Obama’s presidency. If not, I will be making noise about it with the President.

    Monico/Hris: both those issues require Congressional action and therefore couldn’t be included in EO, as you may have seen.

  4. An outstanding share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a friend who was conducting a little homework
    on this. And he actually bought me lunch because I stumbled upon it for
    him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanks for spending some time to discuss this issue here on your site.

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