Green card backlogs for family-based immigrants have grown steadily over the last thirty years, making lawful immigration and family reunification difficult for millions of families.
Many family-based immigration segments have been significantly backlogged for decades, delaying family reunification, and presenting barriers for individuals attempting to immigrate through authorized avenues. Currently, nearly 4 million people are currently waiting abroad in the family-based immigration backlogs. This does not include family members already in the United States with some other immigration status who have applied to adjust their status to a green card.
The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 established the immigration system, including the creation of the “preference system,” which admits new immigrants based on family or employer sponsorship.
There is a Visa Bulletin published each month, a document that determines which “priority dates”—the dates when petitions were initially filed—the government is processing for each preference category. The difference between priority dates in the Visa Bulletin and the current date illustrates the length current applicants have waited to become eligible to receive their green card.
As an example, third preference family-based immigrants (“F-3,” married adult children of U.S. citizens) wait times have increased 900% since 1991. F-3 petitions granted a visa in 2021 had their initial petition filed in 2008, a nearly 13-year wait. The backlogs become worse for individuals from countries subject to limits.
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. Other relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, however, are not counted as “immediate relatives,” and are instead sponsored through this 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 a 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 limitations, including the number of immigrants admitted each year, as well as limits on how the annual total is divided among preference categories and how many individuals can immigrate from a single country each year. Each of these limits is an additional factor in how long each individual may have to wait before they can receive their green card.
As the backlogs have grown larger and opportunities for immigration from certain countries have become more restricted, the U.S. has simultaneously seen a spike in requests for relief in other programs, such as the asylum program. While the populations seeking family sponsorship and asylum are certainly distinct, experts have argued that expanding immigration avenues, such as family- or employment-based immigration, could relieve pressure on humanitarian avenues and provide alternatives to unauthorized immigration.
In addition to the existing backlogs, substantial problems could increase these even further: COVID shutdowns, limited staffing, full or partial closures of embassies and consulates, and the impact of existing travel bans. All these factors contribute to increased processing times, posing difficulties to process the number of green cards up to the annual limits.
Are you or a loved one affected by the preference system and the growing backlogs associated?
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