Immigration News Blog
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
U.S. Family-Based Immigration Policy
Congressional Research Service (CRS)
U.S. Family-Based Immigration Policy
William A. Kandel, Analyst in Immigration Policy
November 19, 2014
[full-text, 41 pages]
Family reunification is a key principle underlying U.S. immigration policy. It is embodied in the
Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which specifies numerical limits for five family-based
admission categories, as well as a per-country limit on total family-based admissions. The five
categories include immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and four other family-based categories that
vary according to individual characteristics such as the legal status of the petitioning U.S.-based
relative, and the age, family relationship, and marital status of the prospective immigrant.
Of the 990,553 foreign nationals admitted to the United States in FY2013 as lawful permanent
residents (LPRs), 649,763, or 66%, were admitted on the basis of family ties. Of these familybased
immigrants admitted in FY2013, 68% were admitted as immediate relatives of U.S.
citizens. Many of the 990,553 immigrants were initially admitted on a temporary basis and
became immigrants by converting or “adjusting” their status to a lawful permanent resident. The
proportion of family-based immigrants who adjusted their immigration status while residing in
the United States (54%) exceeded that of family-based immigrants who had their immigration
petitions processed while living abroad (46%), although such percentages varied considerably
among the five family-based admission categories.
Since FY2000, increasing numbers of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens have accounted for all
of the growth in family-based admissions. Between FY2000 and FY2009, immigrants who
accompanied or later followed principal (qualifying) immigrants averaged 12% of all familybased
admissions annually. During that period, Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, and the
Dominican Republic sent the most family-based immigrants to the United States.
Each year, the number of foreign nationals petitioning for LPR status through family-sponsored
preferences exceeds the supply of legal immigrant slots. As a result, a visa queue has accumulated
of foreign nationals who qualify as immigrants under the INA but who must wait for a visa to
immigrate to the United States. As such, the visa queue constitutes not a backlog of petitions to be
processed but, rather, the number of persons approved for visas not yet available due to INAspecified
numerical limits. As of November 1, 2013, the visa queue included 4.2 million persons.
Every month, the Department of State (DOS) produces its Visa Bulletin, which lists “cut-off
dates” for each of the four numerically limited family-based admissions categories. Cut-off dates
indicate when petitions that are currently being processed for a numerically limited visa were
initially approved. For most countries, cut-off dates range between 1.5 years and 12.5 years ago.
For countries that send the most immigrants, the range expands to between 2 and 23 years ago.
Interest in immigration reform has increased scrutiny of family-based immigration and revived
debate over its proportion of total lawful permanent admissions. Past or current proposals for
overhauling family-based admissions have been made by numerous observers, including two
congressionally mandated commissions.
Those who favor expanding the number of family-based admissions point to this sizable queue of
prospective immigrants who have been approved for lawful permanent residence but must wait
years separated from their U.S.-based family members until receiving a numerically limited
immigrant visa. Their proposals generally emphasize expanding the numerical limits of familybased
categories. Others question whether the United States has an obligation to reconstitute
families of immigrants beyond their nuclear families. Corresponding proposals would eliminate
several family-based preference categories, favoring only those for the immediate relatives of
U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. Such proposals reiterate recommendations made by
earlier congressionally mandated commissions on immigration reform.
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