The White House’s recent proposal for radically restructuring the U.S. immigration system is widely considered a non-starter, unlikely to draw Congressional interest, much less lead to legislation. Nevertheless, it has filled the public airwaves with generalizations about immigration law that are just plain wrong. (And they’re not getting any more correct for having been oft repeated.)
I’m not talking about the philosophy behind the old or proposed new immigration policy, nor about what statistics indicate about the benefits of immigrants to the U.S. economy. I’m talking about what current federal immigration law actually says, particularly about family immigration.
The White House didn’t offer details on which family members should no longer be allowed to reunify with relatives in the United States. Trump began his remarks, however, by stating, “Currently, 66 percent of legal immigrants come here on the basis of random chance. They’re admitted solely because they have a relative in the United States. And it doesn’t really matter who that relative is.”
Uh, yes it does matter. Hearing that statement, the average reader could be excused for thinking that a U.S. citizen or permanent resident’s cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, second cousins, and so on can all claim a green card. They cannot.
Let’s look at who can; it’s a short list, made even less useful to immigrants by its devilish details.
Spouses and children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents are the largest group of beneficiaries allowed visas under current law, as they would seemingly continue to be under Trump’s plan. Parents and siblings of U.S. citizens are visa-eligible, too.
That’s it. The end.
But wait, you’re thinking, what about this “chain migration” Trump keeps talking about? For instance, even if there’s no visa category for cousins, couldn’t someone petition a parent who petitions a sibling who petitions his or her child? That’s the cousin.
And that would do it . . . eventually. The process is likely, however to take so many decades to accomplish that the new immigrants would have to check straight into a U.S. senior citizen facility, as I’ll show in the example below.
Before we get to that, though, one needs to understand that U.S. visa eligibility is split between “immediate relatives,” who can apply for visas right away, and “preference relatives,” who face annual limits on visas and thus a long wait following the filing of the initial petition on their behalf. The only “immediate relatives” are spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens.
Even a U.S. permanent resident’s closest relatives, their own spouse and minor children, are not “immediate relatives” under U.S. law, but rather “preference relatives,” who face a wait for a visa that’s currently around two years long.
We hit more restrictions and limits when it comes to older or married children. A lawful permanent resident (with a green card) cannot petition for married children. A U.S. citizen can, but the child is a “preference relative,” and his or her wait for U.S. entry could be years long. Children over 21 also face annual limits and thus waits, no matter who the parent is.
Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens are in the least useful visa category, with a waiting list of over ten years in most cases. The wait is even longer for siblings of U.S. citizens who hail from the Philippines; applicants for whom the initial sponsorship paperwork was filed in 1997 are only now getting U.S. immigrant visas. (See for yourself on the State Department’s Visa Bulletin; look at category F4 on the family-based list.)
Now, for the example. Let’s imagine a permanent resident named Joe, who obtained U.S. residence through employment, and wants to sponsor his cousin Ana, from Austria, for a green card.
Joe will first need to wait the five years it takes him to become eligible for U.S. citizenship, then successfully apply, which will take around one more year, at least, for the processing and interview and swearing in.
As a citizen, Joe can now petition his (immediate relative) father to get a U.S. green card. That will take another year or so to get through the paperwork.
Joe’s father will then need to wait another six-ish years to go from permanent residence to U.S. citizenship—perhaps adding another year or two if he has trouble learning English and passing the exam.
At last, having become a citizen, Joe’s father could petition for his sister Bertha. Between visa waits and processing times, Bertha will likely enter the U.S. around 15 years later. She gets a U.S. green card and hopes to start the sponsorship process for Ana.
But by now, Ana has become tired of waiting around, and gotten married. A U.S. permanent resident cannot sponsor a married child. So Bertha must wait another six or so years to become a U.S. citizen, then petition for Ana in category F3 of the visa system. Ana faces an approximately 13-year wait for an available visa, plus another year or so to get through the processing.
Joe is happy! His cousin Ana can at last enter the United States! But it took 44 years. If Ana was 20 years old when Joe embarked on this process, she is 64 years old now. At that age, maybe she’ll change her mind about moving at all.
Does this sound like a flood of random immigration to you?