2| Family Reunification is the Backbone of the U.S. Immigration System
The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 established the immigration system as we know it today, including the creation of the “preference system,” which admits new immigrants on the basis of family or employer sponsorship.
Family-based immigration makes up about 65% of annual lawful immigration, including nearly 85% of new immigrant arrivals to the U.S. over the last decade. In recent years, more than 80% of green card recipients from Mexico were sponsored by family members in the U.S., while more than 50% of recipients from Asia were sponsored by family members.
U.S. citizens can sponsor certain foreign-born relatives, designated as “immediate relatives” and including spouses, unmarried children, and parents, to immigrate immediately to the U.S. without any annual caps or numerical limits.1 Other relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, however, are not counted as “immediate relatives,” and are instead sponsored through a numerically limited Family Preference category.
For the past decade, about 220,000 individuals each year have been reunited with their family members in the United States through the family preference categories. While the annual limit for family preference admissions is calculated each year, it has been locked at its statutory minimum of 226,000 for the past twenty years.
There are five preference categories, in descending order of priority:
- First preference (F1) – unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age and older) of U.S. citizens
- Second preference (F2a) – spouses and children (unmarried and under 21 years of age) of lawful permanent residents
- Second preference (F2b) – unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age and older) of lawful permanent residents
- Third preference (F3) – married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
- Fourth preference (F4) – brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens (if the U.S. citizen is 21 years of age and older)
Each of these categories is subject to numerical limits, including overall limits on the number of family preference immigrants admitted each year, as well as limits on how that annual total is divided among the preference categories and per-country limits on the number of individuals from a single country who may be admitted each year. Each of these limits is an additional factor in how long an individual may have to wait before they can receive their green card.
Requests to sponsor an immigrant family member are prioritized by category and by the date that they were received by the government (the “priority date”); when U.S. citizens or residents apply to sponsor more immigrants than are allowed under the numerical limits, a backlog forms, and individuals must wait until a green card is available under the law for them.