For centuries, the promise of reuniting with family has motivated immigrants to make a new home in the United States.
Although family-based immigration has always formed the bedrock of the U.S. immigration system, it is all too common these days to see misconceptions arising from the media and political figures.
This report uses hard data to illuminate the following key facts about family-based immigration in the United States:
- The vast majority of family-sponsored immigrants are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
- Plenty of “high-skilled immigrants” are also family-sponsored immigrants.
- Family-based immigration is the primary pathway to the United States from nearly every country.
- Although most family-sponsored immigrants nationwide came from Mexico, that’s not true for all states.
- There are nearly 4 million people waiting in line for a family-sponsored green card.
- The wait time for some family-sponsored immigrants could be more than 100 years.
- Even for people at the head of the green card line, the government is adding significant extra wait time.
- The spouses and children of some permanent residents have to wait years to live together in the United States.
- President Trump’s plan would drastically reduce family-sponsored immigration.
- America’s peer countries issue far more green cards, based on both family ties and economic needs.
Also in this report:
Who gets a green card?
Each year, the U.S. government allows about 1.1 million people to obtain a green card, making them lawful permanent residents (“LPRs”) who typically become eligible for U.S. citizenship within 3–5 years. There are over 13 million permanent residents living in the United States — not including the many more people who have a temporary visa to visit, work, or study.
Nearly half of these green cards go to the spouses, young children, and parents of U.S. citizens. There is no cap on these “Immediate Relative” family visas.
For other relatives, however, Congress has set an annual cap of 226,000 green cards. These “Family Preference Categories” include the adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens, as well as the spouses and children of lawful permanent residents. Demand always exceeds supply for these green cards, so there is typically a wait time of years or even decades.
In this report, we will use the term “family-sponsored green card” to include any green card based on family ties to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. We will use the U.S. government’s standard term “family-based immigration” to describe legal immigration via family-sponsored green cards, and will avoid the derogatory term “chain migration.”
The vast majority of family-sponsored immigrants are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
If you are a U.S. citizen, you may sponsor your spouse, your parents, and any unmarried children under 21 years old for a green card. These close family relationships make up the great majority (69%) of the family-sponsored green cards issued each year, and are unconstrained by annual caps.
All of the other family-sponsored green cards have to fit within a cap of 226,000 per year, including all of the following categories (where “adult” means 21 or older, and “minor” means under 21):
- Relatives of U.S. citizens:
- Unmarried adult children and their minor children (“F1”)
- Married children and their spouses and minor children (“F3”)
- Siblings and their spouses and minor children (“F4”)
- Relatives of lawful permanent residents:
- Spouses and unmarried minor children (“F2A”)
- Unmarried adult children (“F2B”)
No other family relationships — cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents — can lead directly to a green card.
About half the spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens are already in the United States when they become permanent residents, typically because they first arrived on a temporary student or work visa.
Other family-sponsored immigrants, however, are much more likely to be waiting abroad for their green cards.
Plenty of “high-skilled immigrants” are also family-sponsored immigrants.
Too often, “family-based immigration” is described as something distinct from “high-skilled immigration” or “merit-based immigration.” This may come as a surprise to the millions of U.S. citizens who hold their spouses, children, parents, and other relatives in high esteem.
“Merit-based immigration” is a term usually used to describe immigrants admitted based on education or job skills. But here again, plenty of family-sponsored immigrants are unusually well-educated and highly skilled, finding “greater economic freedom and flexibility than immigrants on restrictive employment-based visas.”
One Cato Institute extrapolation from Census data indicates that immigrants who got their green cards based on family relationships or the Diversity Visa are much more likely to have obtained a college or graduate degree than native-born U.S. citizens. (Immigrants who get their green card based on a job offer nearly always have a college degree or higher, because those are the eligibility rules for such visas.)
Moreover, the average education level of immigrants is rising over time: The Migration Policy Institute found that 48% of recently arrived immigrants were college graduates, compared to just 27% a quarter-century earlier.
Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens are overwhelmingly likely to be working-age (77%), and most of the retirement-age immigrants (10%) are presumably parents.
Other family-sponsored immigrants are more likely to be children (36%), but much less likely to be retirement-age (1.4%).
Although DHS only provides occupational data for about two-thirds of recent immigrants, it appears that family-sponsored immigrants are more likely to be homemakers (hardly an occupation without “merit”), while many are in professional or managerial roles.
Family-based immigration is the primary pathway to the United States from nearly every country.
Because Congress has capped the number of employment-sponsored green cards at 140,000 per year (about 13% of the total), the majority of immigrants in the United States obtain their green cards based on a family relationship.
This is even true for immigrants from China and India, in part because of country-specific caps that further constrain employment-based immigration from large nations. As of now, many more Chinese and Indian nationals obtain green cards through family sponsors, compared with employer sponsors.
In fact, South Korea is the only major country whose employer-sponsored immigrants to the United States outnumber family-sponsored immigrants. Even then, it’s worth noting that roughly half of the employer-sponsored immigrants are actually spouses and children of the primary worker.
Although most family-sponsored immigrants nationwide came from Mexico, that’s not true for all states.
This map shows the home state for most immigrants with recently obtained green cards. You can click to see detailed numbers on which green card categories were used within a particular state.
Not surprisingly, the most permanent residents live in the most populous states: California, Florida, Texas, and New York.
Perhaps more surprisingly, many states in the Northwest and Midwest have a comparable number of immigrants who obtained a green card for refugees and asylees vs. a family-sponsored green card.
The next map focuses only on family-sponsored green cards. You can click to see detailed numbers for the top 10 countries of origin within a particular state.
While Mexico is the top country of origin for family-sponsored immigrants in most states, the top spot is held by the Dominican Republic in much of the Northeast, and there is a surprising degree of variation across the country. For example:
|State||Top country of origin|
There are nearly 4 million people waiting in line for a family-sponsored green card.
For spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens, there is no waiting list for a green card. As long as these relatives are approved for permanent residency — which by itself can take over a year in processing time — they don’t have to wait any longer.
It’s a different story for other family-sponsored immigrants. Right now, there is a waiting list of nearly 4 million people in line for green cards subject to the annual cap of 226,000. The overwhelming majority are relatives of U.S. citizens, especially siblings.
Breaking out this waiting list by country of origin, by far the largest category is Mexican siblings of U.S. citizens. Other relatively large categories include Mexican adult children of permanent residents; Mexican married children of U.S. citizens; and Bangladeshi, Chinese, and Indian siblings of U.S. citizens.
The vast majority of these family-sponsored green card applicants are living abroad while they wait.
At the same time, beyond the nearly 4 million people described above, there are around another 827,000 people waiting in line for an employer-sponsored green card. Most of them are Chinese and Indian workers and their families, who are already living and working in the United States with temporary status such as an H-1B visa.
The wait time for some family-sponsored immigrants could be more than 100 years.
It would be more accurate to describe the waiting list for family-sponsored immigrants as 14 different queues moving at different speeds.
Currently, there is only one queue for the spouses and minor children of permanent residents (“F2A” visas), no matter where in the world they were born.
But all of the other green card categories have two or three extra queues, because of country-based caps. (For decades, no single country of origin has been allowed to account for more than 7% of all family-preference and employer-preference green cards combined.)
This means, for example, that Indian, Mexican, and Filipino siblings of U.S. citizens each wait in their own separate queue, while siblings from all other countries wait in another (faster) queue.
Here is a view of the 14 queues based on how many people are waiting in each of them and how many just got their green cards last year:
Each month, the State Department publishes a bulletin that alerts those waiting in each of these lines when they have made it to the front and can finally finish the green card process. Based on these bulletins, we know for certain that many people just arriving at the front of the line have been waiting for more than two decades.
But make no mistake: People just entering the line today have a much longer wait in store. Remember, there are nearly 4 million people already waiting in one of the 14 lines, and only 226,000 green cards available each year. Worse still, only a few thousand of those green cards are available annually in the lines for those born in India, Mexico, or the Philippines. So wait times typically keep rising.
The chart above doesn’t even capture the full extent of the problem, because it’s not big enough to show what will happen to someone who enters the waiting line today.
Boundless estimates that under current policy, the children of many U.S. citizens are joining a green card waiting list that’s up to 93 years long. For the siblings of many U.S. citizens, the waiting list is more than 130 years long.
In other words, unless current policy changes, many close relatives of U.S. citizens are certain to die before they can obtain their green cards and live together in the United States.
Even for people at the head of the green card line, the government is adding significant extra wait time.
The family immigration process begins when a U.S. citizen or permanent resident “petitions” the government to sponsor a family member for a green card. This requires filing a special form (called an “I-130”) with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In 2015 and 2016, it took USCIS about 6 months to complete this first step. So far this year, the average processing time has increased to over 10 months. During that time, the backlog has ballooned from some 775,000 to over 1.5 million pending cases—even though the volume of incoming cases has been more or less steady.
A similar pattern is evident in the next step for family-sponsored immigrants already living in the United States, which is to submit a formal application to “adjust status” from a temporary visa to a green card. This requires filing a different form (called an “I-485”) with USCIS, and here again the trends are troubling.
In 2015 and 2016, it took USCIS a bit over 6.5 months to complete this step. So far this year, the average processing time has increased to nearly 12 months. During that time, the backlog has shot up from some 194,000 to 372,000 pending cases — again, even though the volume of incoming cases has been more or less steady.
Another way to visualize this problem is to measure how efficiently USCIS deals with its backlogs. If USCIS processed every green card application it received in a given year, plus the applications that were pending from the previous year, that would yield a “backlog completion rate” of 100%.
In reality, USCIS achieved a backlog completion rate of 66% in 2014 for I-485s, dropping to 47% last year. The change is even more precipitous for I-130s, with a backlog completion rate of 80% in 2014 that dipped below 30% last year. In both cases, this slide began before the Trump administration, but the trend has accelerated and now USCIS isn’t even treading water. This does not bode well for future processing times.
Another troubling trend concerns how often a family-sponsored green card applicant is approved for permanent residency. While the denial rate for family sponsorship petitions (I-130) shows no clear trend over the past six years, the denial rate for actual green card applications (I-485) shows signs of a sharp uptick.
While 9% of family-sponsored green card applications were denied by USCIS in 2014, last year the denial rate was 13.2% — a nearly 50% jump resulting in some 14,000 extra denials per year.
It’s not all bad news — USCIS operates nearly 90 field offices across the country, and some of them have gotten faster at processing family-sponsored green card applications over the past year. (When USCIS requires an in-person interview, the applicant must travel to a particular USCIS field office based on their home ZIP code.) In cities like Jacksonville, FL and Albuquerque, NM, the local median processing time has dropped from 10.5 months to just 6 months since this time last year.
But such bright spots are in the minority. Because processing times vary so widely among USCIS field offices, family-sponsored green card applicants in some places face wait times more than three times longer than in other places, for no apparent reason.
The field office in New York City has the most discouraging numbers, compelling most green card applicants to wait 21 months, up to a near-maximum of 36 months.
The spouses and children of some permanent residents have to wait years to live together in the United States.
U.S. citizens are entitled to sponsor their spouses and minor children for green cards, and only have to wait as long as the government’s processing time — there are no special queues.
It may come as a surprise that permanent residents, however, have no guarantee that they can unite quickly with their spouses and minor children in the United States. Because the number of annual green cards is capped, these families have had to wait on average more than three years to get through their particular green card queue (“F2A”).
In July 2019, Congresswoman Judy Chu introduced the Reuniting Families Act, a legislative proposal that would eliminate the green card caps — and thus the waiting time — for spouses and minor children of permanent residents.
Although this bill has limited prospect of becoming law in the near term, it indicates how advocates for family-based immigration would like to change the current system. Key provisions include:
- Eliminating green card caps for spouses and minor children of permanent residents: As described above, this would speed up family unification for around 40,000 immigrants each year.
- “Recapturing” green cards lost to bureaucratic error: Over 240,000 people in the family-based queues and over 506,000 people in the employment based queues would immediately receive one of the many green cards that the government simply failed to issue between 1992–2015 (see Figure 19 here).
- Raising country caps from 7% to 20%: As described above, country caps are the reason that family-sponsored immigrants from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines face such unusually long and growing wait times. Nearly tripling these caps would provide some measure of relief, complemented by…
- Creating a 10-year maximum wait time: Nobody seeking a green card would have to wait longer than a decade to get to the front of the line. This would prevent the current situation where every line gets longer and more hopeless over time.
- No longer counting “derivatives” under green card caps: This is probably the most consequential provision. Currently, when someone obtains a green card as the “primary” applicant, their spouse and minor children (the “derivative” applicants) also have to fit under the worldwide and per-country caps. Exempting these spouses and children from the caps could have the effect of more than doubling the number of immigrants eligible for green cards without a wait each year. (And such an increase in immigration could lead to outsized economic growth.)
President Trump’s plan would drastically reduce family-sponsored immigration.
In May 2019, President Trump announced a new immigration reform plan (not to be confused with his old immigration reform plan), including dramatic changes to how green cards would be allocated. Although this proposal has limited prospect of becoming law in the near term, it indicates how skeptics of family-based immigration would like to change the current system.
In short, Trump’s proposal would maintain the same number of new green cards issued each year (about 1.1 million), but reallocate over 500,000 of them to a “points-based” category designed to reward “extraordinary talent,” “professional and specialized vocations,” and “exceptional academic track records.”
This would apparently be accomplished by eliminating family-sponsored green cards for the parents, adult children, and siblings of U.S. citizens, as well as the spouses and young children of permanent residents. The Diversity Visa program would be eliminated and reallocated as well.
The following chart presents a detailed breakdown of family-sponsored immigration flows for 200 counties across the United States. Under the Trump plan, individuals in the columns labeled “parents of U.S. citizens” and “other relatives” would no longer be eligible for a family-sponsored green card.
America’s peer countries issue far more green cards, based on both family ties and economic needs.
As part of its justification for cutting family-based immigration, the Trump administration frequently praises countries — especially Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — that allocate a higher percentage of their own green cards based on economic factors.
While it’s certainly true that these countries offer a lower proportion of family-sponsored green cards compared with skills-based green cards, this observation obscures another important fact: All of these countries provide far more green cards on a per-capita basis compared with the United States.
Among the world’s wealthy countries, the United States provides the most green cards per year on an absolute basis, but among the fewest per year on a population-adjusted basis.
By this measure, Canada and Australia offer permanent residency to well over twice as many immigrants compared with the United States — and for New Zealand that figure is more than triple.
Therefore, if the United States truly wanted to emulate Canada’s immigration system, we would only tip the scales toward skills-based immigration after more than doubling the number of available green cards each year. The result would be a big boost in skills-based green cards, but no major change in family-sponsored green cards.
In other words, if the United States welcomed as many immigrants as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — for a country of our size — we could comfortably increase the share of green cards based on skills and employer needs, without telling U.S. citizens and permanent residents that they can’t live here with their families.
Special thanks to Richie Bernardo, Chris Montes, Kari Rosa, Xiao Wang, Sarah Warn, and the rest of the Boundless team for their work on this report as well.
We appreciate the work of Nicolas Kayser-Bril, who beautifully visualized the data in this report. We are also grateful to Athena Duran for collecting and maintaining much of this data.
Thanks to Aman Kapoor and the Immigration Voice team for submitting a very fruitful FOIA request some time ago, yielding the detailed data on pending I-130 forms that made much of this report possible.
For those interested in a deeper dive into the details of family-based immigration, please see these reports from the Cato Institute, the Migration Policy Institute, and the Congressional Research Service.
Finally, we wish to thank the anonymous and hard-working public servants at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of State (DOS) who, year after year and quarter after quarter, produce the essential DHS Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, USCIS Immigration and Citizenship Data, and DOS Report of the Visa Office.
The following data sources were used in this report as the sources for each bulleted data type. Unless otherwise noted, each of these data sources was accessed on or around June 20, 2019.
Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2017. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. “Table 7. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Type and Detailed Class of Admission: Fiscal Year 2017.”
- Pie chart of family-sponsored immigration categories
- Table of family-sponsored immigration categories
Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2017. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. “Table 9. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Broad Class of Admission and Selected Demographic Characteristics: Fiscal Year 2017.”
- Pie charts of immigration categories based on age
- Pie charts of immigration categories based on occupation
Bier, David. “Family & Diversity Immigrants Are Far Better Educated Than U.S.-Born Americans.” Cato at Liberty blog. Jan. 25, 2018.
- Pie charts of immigration categories based on education
Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2017. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. “Table 10. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Broad Class of Admission and Region and Country of Birth: Fiscal Year 2017.”
- Table of immigration by country of origin
Supplementary Tables to Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. “LPR by State, County, Country of Birth, and Major Class of Admission (Top 200 Counties): 2016.”
- Map of green card volume by state
- Table of immigration by county
- Map of immigrant country of origin by state
Database Query Report. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Number of approved family based preference immigrant petitions awaiting a priority date based on the
May 2018 Department of State Visa Bulletin.”
Count of Approved I-130 Petitions as of April 23 2018 with a Priority Date On or After May 2018.PDF
- Chart of family-sponsored green card queues by visa category
- Chart of family-sponsored green card queues by country of origin
- Chart of green card queue volume and annual visas issued
- Chart of current and projected green card wait times
Database Query Report. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Number of approved employment based preference immigrant petitions awaiting a priority date based on the
May 2018 Department of State Visa Bulletin.”
Count of Approved I-140 I-360 and I-526 Petitions as of April 20 2018 with a Priority Date On or After May 2018.PDF
- Estimate of employment-based green card queue size
Report of the Visa Office 2018. Department of State. “Table V (Part 1): Immigrant Visas Issued and Adjustments of Status Subject to Numerical Limitations, Fiscal Year 2018.”
FY18AnnualReport – TableV.pdf
- Chart of green card queue volume and annual visas issued
- Chart of current and projected green card wait times
Visa Bulletin. Department of State. “Visa Bulletin For July 2019.”
- Chart of current and projected green card wait times
Immigrant Visa Statistics. Department of State. “Family Preference Final Action Dates from FY1992-2018” for Worldwide, China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines.
- Line graph of projected green card wait times
Immigration and Citizenship Data. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “All USCIS Application and Petition Form Types” [several quarters].
- Line graph of Form I-130 volume
- Line graph of Form I-485 volume
- Line graph of backlog completion rates
- Line graph of denial rates
Check Case Processing Times. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
- Median and maximum processing times for each field office, recorded each month between July 2018 and July 2019
Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2017. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. “Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Type and Major Class of Admission: Fiscal Years 2015 to 2017.”
- Comparison of current policy to Trump administration proposal
International Migration Outlook 2018. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Table 1.1. Inflows of permanent immigrants into OECD countries, 2010-16.”
- Comparison of immigration volume across multiple countries
- Comparison of U.S. policy to Canadian policy
Hooper, Kate and Salant, Brian. “It’s Relative: A Crosscountry Comparison of Family-Migration Policies and Flows.” Migration Policy Institute. Policy Briefs. 2018.
- Comparison of U.S. policy to Canadian policy
Definition of Terms
Backlog completion: The number of applications processed within a fiscal year, divided by the sum of (a) the number of applications filed within the same fiscal year and (b) the year-end backlog as of the prior fiscal year (expressed as a percentage)
Denial rate: Within a given time period, the number of applications denied, divided by the number of applications processed
DHS: U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Field office: The local office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) where immigration officials conduct green card and citizenship interviews; applicants are assigned to a field office based on the ZIP code of their residence.
Filed: The number of applications received by USCIS within a given time period
Processed: The number of applications approved plus the number of applications denied by USCIS within a given time period
USCIS: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a component agency of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Wait time / processing time (average): The national average processing time for a given form based on all field offices within a period of time, as estimated by USCIS
Wait time / processing time (max): The time it takes to complete 93% of cases for a given form within a given field office, as estimated by USCIS
Wait time / processing time (median): The time it takes to complete 50% of cases for a given form within a given field office, as estimated by USCIS
Year-end backlog: The number of applications listed “pending” (i.e. not processed) by USCIS at the end of a given fiscal year
Notes on Charts
- Data points line up with the end of each fiscal year on the x-axis, because each year-end backlog represents a snapshot in time as of that moment.
- There are apparently no government processing time data publicly available for years prior to FY2012.
First published on July 17, 2019