Top 10 Surprising Facts About Family-Based Immigration



Introduction


Multigenerational Immigrant Family

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 findings about family-based immigration in the United States:

  1. Trump Administration’s Plan Would Drastically Reduce Family-Sponsored Immigration
  2. Wait Time for Some Green Card Categories Could Be 100 years Plus
  3. Family-Sponsored Immigrants Better Educated Than Native-Born U.S. Citizens
  4. Although most family-sponsored immigrants nationwide came from Mexico, that’s not true for all states.
  5. Nearly 4 Million People Waiting For Family-Sponsored Green Card
  6. Spouses and Children of Green Card Holders Sometimes Wait Years to Live Together In U.S.
  7. Canada and Australia Issue Twice the Number of Permanent Resident Visas Compared to U.S.
  8. Majority of Immigrants Obtain Green Card Through Family
  9. Wait Times for Family-Sponsored Green Cards Have Nearly Doubled
  10. Most Family-Sponsored Immigrants Are Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

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.”


Acknowledgments


This report was researched and written by Doug Rand, co-founder of Boundless Immigration and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

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.

Vivian Chang from APALA, Julia Gelatt from the Migration Policy Institute, and David Bier from the Cato Institute provided valuable feedback on the content and methodology of this report.

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.


Methodology


Data Sources

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.”
https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2017/table7

  • 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.”
https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2017/table9

  • 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.”
https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2017/table10

  • 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.”
https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/readingroom/LPR/LPRcounty

  • 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.”
travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/legal/visa-law0/visa-bulletin/2019/visa-bulletin-for-july-2019.html

  • 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.
travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/legal/visa-law0/visa-statistics/immigrant-visa-statistics.html

  • 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].
https://www.uscis.gov/tools/reports-studies/immigration-forms-data

  • 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.
https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/

  • 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.”
https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2017/table6

  • 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.”
https://data.oecd.org/migration/permanent-immigrant-inflows.htm

  • 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.
migrationpolicy.org/research/crosscountry-comparison-family-migration

  • 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