Legislation to Reduce Green Card Backlogs
Gaining Support in Congress

Leaders from both parties have introduced various bills to reduce green card backlogs and help reunite families, including recapturing wasted green cards. We break down the issues and compare the different bills below.
Close up view of Permanent resident card (Green) card of USA on blurred background.
Close up view of Permanent resident card (Green) card of USA on blurred background.
Green card recapture would reduce the years long backlog without increasing annual immigration levels.

Green card recapture could reduce wait times for millions of families in green card backlogs

Millions of people are stuck waiting for years, even decades, to receive a green card, despite having their initial applications already approved. These green card backlogs include millions of people, sponsored by U.S. citizens and permanent residents, waiting to be reunited with their families in the U.S., as well as hundreds of thousands of individuals on employment-based visas (and their families) who have been living and working in the U.S. for years and have been sponsored by their employers for permanent residency.

One popular proposal to reduce the green card backlogs is to “recapture” and make available green cards that had been authorized in previous years but were ultimately never issued.1 This would reduce the years long backlogs without increasing annual immigration levels. While it’s not a perfect long-term solution—Congress must ultimately reform outdated policies andincrease annual immigration to meet the country’s economic and demographic needs—recapturing green cards would at least put a dent in the backlogs and provide relief to some families stuck waiting.

For more background on why green cards go unissued, read our explainer here.

Multiple green card recapture proposals have been introduced in the 117th Congress

Bipartisan leaders in both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation to recapture green cards that USCIS has previously failed to issue, and subsequently have gone to waste.

Summary of green card recapture and backlog reduction legislation in the 117th Congress

The formula fix and backlog reduction policies would be the most effective in preventing future green card waste and significantly reducing the backlogs.

Some bills, like the U.S. Citizenship Act (S. 348) and the Jumpstart Act (H.R. 7374), propose an expansive recapture window covering nearly 30 years and are inclusive of family- and employment-based green cards. They also propose long-term fixes to the carry-over formula to ensure that green cards are not wasted, and that recapture is not needed, in the future. These bills include other policy solutions to further reduce green card backlogs, like reclassifying dependents of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) as immediate relatives and expanding exemptions from numerical limits for individuals who pay a fee or who have waited in backlogs for many years.

Ultimately, the formula fix and backlog reduction policies in the Jumpstart Act and U.S. Citizenship Act would be the most effective in preventing future green card waste and significantly reducing both the employment- and family-based green card backlogs.

Other proposed bills take narrower approaches targeting specific populations and immigration avenues. For example, the Preserving Employment Visas Act (S. 2828) seeks to recapture unused employment-based green cards only from 2020 and 2021, when the immigration system was severely limited by the Administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Healthcare Workforce Resilience Act (S. 1024) recaptures green cards going back to 1992, but makes only 40,000 visas available, with 25,000 for physicians and 15,000 for nurses. The Keeping Our Promise Act (H.R. 3548) limits recapture to diversity visas for individuals who had been denied a chance to apply from 2017-2021.

These narrower bills would certainly be impactful for the specific populations for which they are designed, and would provide immediate relief and solutions for pressing challenges like shortages of health-care workers and expiring diversity visas. But Congress would need to ensure that these targeted approaches are complemented by additional legislation to address the underlying systemic problems driving the green card backlogs and hurting families, or the same problems will emerge again.

The RELIEF Act (S. 3721) is a backlog-reduction bill that does not actually recapture green cards, but would instead increase the annual limits of the number of green cards issued for five years until backlogs are eliminated. This is the most direct way to eliminate green card backlogs, though it would not fix the future waste issue.

Green card recapture is a tried and tested policy solution.”

Green card recapture has been successful before, and is needed more than ever

Green card recapture is a tried and tested policy solution for shrinking green card backlogs, reducing years long wait times, and reuniting families. As early as 2000, Congress passed the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act with near unanimous support; the law recaptured about 130,000 employment-based green cards that had been authorized but never issued in 1999 and 2000; the Real ID Act of 2005 extended this window another five years and authorized the recapture of an additional 50,000 employment-based green cards, which were reserved specifically for nurses. By 2007, all of the recaptured green cards had been issued to individuals waiting in backlogs.

The House-passed version of the Build Back Better Act included recapture language and a fix for the formula, but the language was never formally reviewed by the Parliamentarian, and was never taken up in the Senate. Now, leaders from both parties have introduced various stand-alone proposals that use some form of recapturing wasted green cards to reduce backlogs, though the scope and approach varies between bills.

Additional proposals have gained support in recent years as green card backlogs have grown, due in part to Trump Administration’s policies that severely restricted immigration and contributed to the growing backlogs. In 2021, USCIS failure to issue tens of thousands of green cards authorized by Congress. As ongoing labor shortages make clear the need to facilitate immigrants’ full participation in the workforce, leaders in Congress have started to examine why green cards were being wasted and how the backlogs could be reduced.

Directly-impacted individuals speaking to the devastating impacts of the green card backlogs on families and young people have also motivated Members to act. For example, when 23-year-old University of Texas graduate Athulya Rajakumar provided powerful testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship and Border Safety in March 2022 about how the backlogs have harmed her family and put her own future in the U.S. at risk, Senators on both sides of the aisle committed to act.

Congress should quickly take up legislation to reduce the green card backlogs and prevent further waste.

Congress should quickly take up legislation to reduce the green card backlogs and prevent further waste

Leaders in Congress have many bipartisan proposals before them, each with advantages and nuances worth considering. Any of these proposals would help modernize the country’s outdated immigration system; failing to act, however, will only cause the backlogs to grow bigger, and will continue to put one of America’s greatest competitive advantages at risk. To ensure that immigrants can fully contribute to the workforce and to keep families together, Congress should quickly take up legislation to reduce the green card backlogs and prevent further waste.


  1. Immigration law sets a numerical limit on the number of green cards that can be issued each year. When the government fails to reach the annual authorization, the unused green cards are supposed to “roll over” from one immigration category to another; if the number of family-based green cards issued one year is less than the annual limit, the employment-based cap should be increased by the difference the next year. However, the formula used to calculate the rollover is outdated, and essentially eliminates any unused green cards as they roll from the employment to family category. This results in authorized green cards never being issued, artificially limiting immigration below statutory levels and contributing to the backlogs.
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