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.