Understanding the U.S. Immigration System: Family Immigration Visas

Understanding the U.S. Immigration System: Family Immigration Visas from genevalopez2012.com

If you’re just joining me today, a friend of mine recently asked if I could elaborate on what the process entails for an individual to immigrate legally to the United States.  I decided I wanted to address this subject in various parts and posts since it’s such a complex process.  You can check out my first post on this topic here: Understanding the U.S. Immigration System: Tourist Visas, as I address the process of obtaining tourist visas.  As a reminder, I am not a lawyer and any information I share here should NEVER be substituted for competent legal advice from a lawyer. Because of my family’s own experiences going through the legal immigration process, as well as my professional experience providing counseling services to individuals who have gone through the process, I’m sometimes asked to share information on the topic.

Today’s blog may be the most eye-opening of any I do on the topic.  Today, we’re going to take a look at how someone can legally immigrate to the U.S. via family members.

Permanent Residents vs. U.S. Citizens: What’s the Difference?

First, it’s important to distinguish between lawful permanent residents and citizens of the U.S.  Both have gone through a legal process to obtain their status, both are legally allowed to live in the United States and work here, and both pay taxes.  Understand that when someone first legally enters this country as a legal immigrant, they will NOT be granted citizenship; they will be given permanent residency, first.  The individual must live in the U.S.A as a permanent resident for a certain amount of years (3-5, depending on the type of immigration case they have) before they can apply to become citizens of the United States and, of course, pay all the fees involved with THAT process.  However, an individual is never obligated to become a citizen; they can choose to remain a Permanent Resident only and they are still just as “legal” as an individual who chooses to become a citizen.

How Does Someone Qualify for Immigration Via a Family Member?

In order for an individual to legally immigrate to the United States via a family member, they must be one of the following:

  • Spouse of a U.S citizen or permanent resident
  • Son or daughter of a U.S. citizen
  • Unmarried son or daughter of a permanent resident
  • Parent of a U.S. citizen
  • Brother or sister of a U.S. citizen

If an individual falls into one of these categories, their relative living in the United States can file a petition for them and start the process.  There are many steps and fees involved in this process and the process is different depending on the familial relationship, so rather than list all of that, you can find this information by following this link to the government website: Family Immigration Visas.  Individuals will have to meet certain health requirements, financial requirements, submit to background checks, and complete interviews, to name a view of the steps.

How Long Does the Process Take? 

So how long can a family member expect to be waiting for their application to be processed and approved?  Well, that depends.

If a family member being petitioned for is the spouse of a U.S. citizen, the unmarried child under 21 years of age of a U.S. citizen, or the parent of a U.S. citizen who is 21 years old or older, THEN this process is the fastest of all family petitions.  There are no limits to the number of family visas available each year for these three family relationships, so the process moves more quickly.  However, the amount of time it will take for these applications to be processed varies day by day, will depend on the processing center that the individual’s application has been assigned to, and will also depend on the country of origin of the family member being petitioned for.  Currently, in general, the process is said to take approximately 6 months – 1 year for these specific cases, but can be greatly impacted by many factors.    

But what about family members who do not fall into one of those three categories?  How long does their process take?

Again, it depends.

When a family member does not fall into one of the above three categories, their petition is prioritized based on the nature of their relationship with the U.S. petitioner and they will fall into one of the following 4 preferences:

  1. F1-First: Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. Citizens
  2. F2A: Spouses and Children of Permanent Residents
    F2B: Unmarried sons and daughters 21 years or older of Permanent Residents
  3. F3: Married sons and daughters of U.S. Citizens
  4. F4: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. Citizens

As mentioned earlier, the amount of family visas allowed for immediate relatives (spouses, children under 21 years old, and parents) of U.S. Citizens is unlimited, but for family members that fall into one of these other categories, that is not the case.  Each year, the government establishes a certain amount of family visas allotted for each of these four categories.  According to the information provided on the U.S. Department of State’s website, currently the amount of visas allowed each year for each category is as follows:

  1. F1: 23,400
  2. F2: 114,200 total, with F2A members being allotted 77% of these and F2B members being allotted 23%
  3. F3: 23,400
  4. F4: 65,000

If the amount of visas allowed for a preference are not reached, then any “left over” visas will be added to the amount allowed for the subsequent preference.  For example, if only 20,000 visas are granted for individuals who fall into the F1 category, then the remaining 3,400 visas not used in that category will be added to the 114,200 total of the F2 category, bringing that total for the year to 117,600 visas allotted.

However, if that wasn’t complicated enough, there are also limitations to the number of visas allowed for each country every year.  Therefore, someone from Russia, for example, may have a much shorter waiting time than an individual from Mexico because the amount of visas allowed for Russia has not been met yet, but has been met for Mexico.

Whooo.  Still with me?

When an individual files a petition for a family member, the government will send them what is known as a priority date.  They can use this priority date to check on the status of their application throughout the process.  However, the U.S. Department of State, also publishes what is known as a Visa Bulletin each month.  This can be especially useful for individuals who are trying to immigrate from countries in which, currently, the number of visas is oversubscribed.  In other words, a country is referred to as oversubscribed when the amount of visa applicants exceeds the amount of visas allotted for that country.  According to the December, 2018 bulletin, currently the following countries are all oversubscribed: China (mainland born), El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Mexico, Philippines, and Vietnam.  

So what does this mean, exactly?  Let’s take a look at Mexico.  According to this month’s Visa Bulletin, the United States government is ready to begin immediate processing of applications who have been assigned priority dates BEFORE the following dates listed in each category:

  1. F1: April, 1999
  2. F2A: December, 2017
    F2B: August, 1997
  3. F3: October, 1999
  4. F4: September, 1998

In other words, currently, a Mexican applicant who is the unmarried son or daughter of a U.S. citizen and is is 21 years or older, will have been waiting 19 years for their turn in this process.

Currently, for countries that are not oversubscribed, for applicants who are the unmarried son or daughter of a U.S. citizen and are 21 years or older, the government is ready to begin processing applications with priority dates before August, 2011, meaning these individuals have been waiting approximately 7 years. 

When we take this information and combine it with information that I provided in this previous blog The Real Question We Should Be Asking About the Migrant Caravan (disclaimer: The blog post about the Caravan contains both facts and personal opinions, unlike the blog post you are currently reading), it may bring some clarification as to why individuals feel a need to forego the legal process.

In Summary

This information is constantly changing and, as you can see, dependent on several factors.  Also, this is a general overview of the typical process for family visas, but as always, there are exceptions.  If you take nothing else from this post, though, take this: Every case is different.  Just because John Doe did it this way and it took this amount of time, does NOT mean that Jane Doe’s process will be the same.  There are many components to this process and I’ve tried to explain that as briefly as possible in this blog.  

 

Understanding the U.S. Immigration System: Tourist Visas

Understanding the U.S. Immigration System: Tourist Visas from genevalopez2012.com

A friend of mine recently asked if I could share information on what the legal process entails for immigrating to the USA, as she is trying to gain a better understanding.  I am not a lawyer and any information I provide on this topic should never be substituted for competent legal advice from a lawyer.  However, I have personally been through the process of legal immigration, as I married a man born and raised in El Salvador, I have many friends and family members who have also been through the process, and I have worked professionally in therapy with individuals who have dealt with the system as well.  So, I’m not an expert on the subject, but I do have quite a bit of experience with it.

One of the arguments many people give for opposing “illegal immigration” is that they believe people should follow our laws and regulations and “do it the right and legal way.”  But what does that process entail, exactly?

I decided I wanted to tackle this topic in parts, as it’s quite a complicated process.  Though I’m known for being long-winded in my writing, even I will admit that most people aren’t going to sit through one, big post on this topic.  Ha!  While I won’t be able to address every single facet of legal immigration, the plan is to write several posts on the topic addressing some of the key elements.  Each original post will avoid my personal opinion on the topic and will simply be a resource to educate and inform, providing information from both government websites and personal examples.

Let’s Get Started.  First topic: Tourist Visas.

Whenever any citizen of a foreign country wants to visit the United States, not only must they have a passport, but they must also apply and be approved for what is known as a tourist visa or B-2 visa.  According to the U.S. Department of State website, appropriate uses of this visa include tourism, vacation, visiting friends/family, medical treatment, participation in social events, participation in amateur events as a musician, athlete, or something similar as long as the individual is not being paid for participation, and enrollment in a short course of study that does not count as credit towards a degree.

In order to apply for this visa, in most cases, one would adhere to the following process:

  1. Complete Form DS-160, the application form for a tourist visa, which can be found at the U.S. Department of State website.
  2. Schedule a visa interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate of the country in which one lives.  Wait times for these interviews vary by country.  You can find approximate wait times for the city in which you live at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/tourism-visit/visitor.html.  Current wait times for this visa interview as of today’s date, for example, are approximately 9 days for Tokyo, 16 for Baghdad, and 20 for San Salvador.
  3. Pay a processing fee of $160.  This fee will NOT be refunded whether the visa is granted or not.  
  4. Gather any required documents for the visa interview, which will vary depending on the country of origin and purpose of visit.
  5. Attend the visa interview appointment.

After the visa interview, the applicant will find out whether they are approved for a B-2 visa or not.  I recently polled a small, anonymous audience on Facebook regarding this topic.  I asked the following question:

True or False: Pending there is no serious criminal history or known ties to terrorists, the individual should be approved for the visa.

The results of my poll, found that approximately 67% of the individuals who answered the poll, believed this to be a true statement, while 33% of the individuals who answered the poll, believed this to be a false statement.  So, what’s the answer?

FALSE.

While this criteria will certainly play a role in determining whether or not an applicant is approved for a B-2 tourist visa, there is actually quite a bit more criteria that must be met for approval.  You can read the extensive list of reasons why an individual may be denied a tourist visit, by copying and pasting this link in your browser: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/waivers.html. 

An example of a reason one may be denied a visitor’s visa is that the interviewing officer believes the applicant may become a public charge while in the United States.  To determine this, the officer will consider the applicant’s age, health, family status (single, married, etc), assets and financial status, and education and skills.

When my husband and I were getting married in 2008, we really wanted his family in El Salvador to be here.  The family members who applied for a B-2 visa, brought an invitation to our wedding with them to their visa interviews.  Of those who applied, his mother, one sister, and his brother were all, thankfully, granted a tourist visa and were able to attend our wedding.  However, one sister who applied at the same time for the same reasons, was denied the visa and unable to attend.  She had no criminal history and no health issues, but was most likely denied due to lack of financial assets at the time.  According to the U.S. Department of State’s website, “The sole authority to approve or deny (called adjudicate) visa applications, under U.S. immigration law section 104(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, is given to consular officers at U.S. Embassies and Consulates.”  

If a B-2 visa is granted, it can be awarded for various time frames.  Some individuals are approved for a 5-year visa, some a 10-year visa, and others a visa that expires after a few days after entry into the United States.  This does not mean, however, that an individual awarded a 10-year, B-2 visa can enter the United States and legally stay for 10 consecutive years; it just means that their visa is good for a total of 10 years and they will not have to re-apply for a visitor’s visa each time they travel to the United States within that 10-year period.  Once an individual enters the U.S., the officer who reviews the individual’s documents at customs, determines how long the individual can stay during the particular visit, with the longest stay allowed on this specific type of visa being 6 months.

This is a brief synopsis of the typical process required for a tourist visa to the United States.  What do you think?  Any of the information surprise you?  I would encourage you to spend more time on the websites provided throughout this post to gain an even better understanding of B-2 visas.

And as always, thank you for trying to educate yourself on the process of legal immigration into the United States so that you can form your own informed opinion on the topic.