The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) loves to extol the virtues of keeping immigrant families together. On its webpage on obtaining a green card through a family member, the agency states: “To promote family unity, immigration law allows permanent residents of the United States to petition for certain eligible relatives to come and live permanently in the United States.”
Well, that’s true. The agency DOES allow lawful permanent residents–LPRs, or green card holders–to petition to bring family members to the U.S. and get those members green cards. The catch? There are only 226,000 visas available each year.
The bigger catch? The visa priority system, which preferences U.S. citizens over LPRs, and certain family relationships over others, ALSO places per-country limits on visas. In all of this, an LPR can wait for up to 20 years before their family member can enter the U.S., depending on who that family member is and their country of origin.
Here’s how the Family-Sponsored Preference system works: First, there is an inherent “first preference” for immediate family members of U.S. citizens. These relatives–mostly foreign-born spouses–get visas more or less immediately, through the K visa system. Behind spouses/fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens is where the line begins.
First-preference goes to unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. There are 23,400 of these visas available per year, plus any visas left over from the fourth preference category (below).
Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters of LPRs fall under the second preference. There are only 114,200 of these granted each year, and 77 percent of them must go to spouses and minor children (under 21 years old) of LPRS. Unmarried sons and daughters (over 21) of LPRs are also part of the second preference category, getting the remaining 23%. Third-preference is comprised of married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. Bringing up the rear is the fourth preference category, reserved for brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.
So, we’ve covered U.S. citizen vs. LPR, and figured out the relationships that “matter.” But there’s more. Let’s go back to the country limits. Currently, countries like India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines are “oversubscribed.” For example, an LPR from Mexico, looking for a visa for her minor child (second-preference category) currently faces a “priority date” of December 1, 2008 (November 2011 State Department Visa Bulletin). That means that the U.S. State Department is only issuing visas for those who had a visa petition in the works before that date. Given the glacial pace of the system, this LPR–here in the U.S. legally–will have to wait another three years before her minor child is issued an immigrant visa. The wait times are worst for Philippines-born brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens–the priority date there is August 22, 1988.
Where is the family unity in a program that separates children from their parents, spouses from their betrothed, and siblings from each other?
We all know that immigration is an extremely touchy topic, fraught with emotion, and susceptible to the wildest rumors. What gets lost in all of the noise and debate, though, is the people who work among us, live here legally, and contribute to this country, but are kept apart from their loved ones. How would you fare if you were separated from your child for three years? Your spouse for two and a half years (China-born spouse of LPR, second-preference)? Twenty-three years (Philippines-born sister of U.S. citizen, fourth-preference)?
Small changes can restore some humanity to immigration policy. Increasing the numbers of visas available would be a start. There’s no logical reason to limit visa availability to 226,000. Remember: these are visas that are available to family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents–people who have already gone through proper legal channels to establish residency and work in the United States! The paltry number of visas available is based on demand from decades ago and is clearly unable to keep pace with today’s needs. Increasing the numbers available would make family unity policy real, and not some web page platitude.
Otherwise, where is the “family unity” in all of this?