An article published by the New York Times today says that more than 4.4 million immigrants who are residing in the United States legally are seeing little progress in their requests for green cards, or permanent residency status. The newspaper spoke to one woman, Angeles P. Barberena, a native of Mexico, who has been waiting for 17 years as her file proceeds through the backlog that she said often makes her feel like yelling with frustration. 

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Part of the blame for the indolence of the legal immigration system goes to a quota system which puts a cap on the number of people who can come from countries, so that only 7 percent of the annual visas granted can go to citizens of one country. There is not, as the Migration Policy Institute points out, a single long "line" for green card applicants, but rather a series of channels. These correspond to four main categories: employment-based, in which employers sponsor workers; family-based, in which certain relatives of US citizens or permanent residents can petition; refugee and asylum, awarded because of difficult conditions in a person's country of origin; and the diversity lottery, which grants 55,000 green cards to people of countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

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Family-based applicants tend to be most affected by the ever-growing backlog, especially for immigrants from China, Mexico, India or the Philippines. In the case of unmarried sons and daughters of permanent residents in Mexico, for example, some have been waiting for as much as 20 years.  Some Filipinos in the "sibling preference" category have been waiting for their priority date -- the date an immigrant's petition for permanent residency is filed, establishing that person's place in the queue -- for over a decade. 

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The Senate's comprehensive immigration reform bill would eliminate this country cap. According to the New York Times, it would also include a requirement that all backlogs of currently legal applicants be cleared within 10 years -- before any currently undocumented immigrants could obtain green cards. It would also boost the number of visas that were given out more generally, expanding the cap for high-skill visas to as high as 180,000 (an alternative, single-issue House bill for high-skilled workers would also increase the cap to 155,000).  The Senate's legislation would also create a new visa for low-skilled workers which would start out at 20,000 and rise to 75,000 in its fourth year.  Both Senate visa programs would be adjustable depending on industry need.