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Colorblind Immigration

Who would have thought that the card is not even green?

September 1, 2000

Who would have thought that the card is not even green?

Foreigners who want to work in the United States need to obtain either a so-called “green card” or an H1B visa, which, in very limited numbers, is made available to highly-skilled workers. But there is a night-and-day difference between the two visas. H1B holders are strictly temporary immigrants, whereas holders of green cards are permanent legal residents.

In the United States, many companies have urged the federal government to raise the annual allotment of H1B visas (currently 115,000) in order to fill jobs left vacant because of a shrinking pool of skilled applicants. Now that the rest of Europe is starting to chase the United States in building a high-tech “new economy”, these countries — Germany, most notably — have already instituted temporary immigration schemes for highly-skilled workers, or are debating such schemes.

But almost everywhere, the lingua franca of the debates has become the green card. It is not surprising that, in the United States, the term “green card” has taken place of “U.S. Alien Registration Receipt Card Form I-151.” But calling the card green is misleading.

Not even the very first Alien Registration Form AR-3, issued in 1940, was green — nor did the card, which was actually white, have much to do with immigration. The form was designed as a national defense measure requiring all non-U.S. citizens to register themselves shortly before the country entered World War II.

Finally, in 1951, the Internal Security Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, replacing the AR-3 with the green I-151 card. But the green I-151 card lasted for just over a decade, changing colors in 1964. The color of the card was then changed several times in order to make it more difficult to counterfeit.

Since 1977, the green card has come in a fashionable pink. Its latest high-tech incarnation is machine readable and has several new features making it less easy to reproduce in dark basements. Each year, with the number of H1B visas in short supply, many hopeful immigrants enter the so-called Green Card Lottery, which awards 55,000 cards to the lucky winners.

Earlier this year, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder initiated a debate in his country about a green card program that would enable Germany to award temporary work visas to much-needed highly-skilled foreign workers.

The ensuing debate saw the term “green card” thrown around by both proponents and opponents of the proposal as a shorthand for any type of immigration permit. It would appear that the only Germans that know the green card is actually pink are those currently holding one in their wallets in the United States.

The German government began processing applications for temporary work visas on August 1. But that was not soon enough for Bavaria, one of Germany’s largest states. Known throughout Europe for doing things differently, Bavaria introduced a separate scheme for high-tech immigrants in July — a full month before the federal government even began to process applications. Not surprisingly, Bavaria’s cards are blue, not green.

The Bavarian Interior Minister has stressed the fact that his state’s blue card is not to be confused with the federal government’s type of green card. The difference, he says, is that the blue card will enable the Bavarian state to get the people into Germany quicker than the federal model.

So what are the likely consequences should Bavaria turn out to be more successful in attracting immigrant workers than other German states? Clearly, as Bavarian companies prosper due to the influx of skilled workers, the other states will be “green” with envy — and they will soon be processing their own immigration cards, whatever colors they may be.