Family has never been simple
By Kassira Absar, Research Associate
Family has never been simple
Understanding “chain migration” in the United States
The process by which foreign nationals permanently resettle within the U.S. and subsequently bring over their foreign relatives, who then have the opportunity to bring over their foreign relatives, and so on, until the entire extended families are resettled within the county. Chain migration is a process that can continue without limit.
This got me curious about the mechanics of family migration in the United States and the facts behind related policy conversations that have dominated headlines recently. What sparked my curiosity further was thinking of my immigrant parents. I’ve always thought about how they built a life here but less about what it took for them to get here.
Let’s start with some basics. After reviewing the guidelines from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, I noted there are three factors (of many) shaping family-based migration: the sponsor, eligible family members, and family preference.
Sponsors: By definition, family migration requires an official sponsor who is somehow related to the migrant. Family-sponsored visas, however, are not all created equal. There are different processes and requirements in place for U.S. citizens (those who are U.S. citizens at birth or acquire citizenship via their parents, and those who gain citizenship via naturalization), Green Card holders (lawful permanent residents), and refugees and asylees. Not everyone with a foot on U.S. soil can sponsor any foreign family member, but U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, and refugees and asylees all can serve as a sponsor to at least some family members.
Eligible family members: The type of family members who are eligible for sponsorship varies depending on the status of the sponsor, as shown in the table below.
3. Family preference: Visas for immediate family (spouses, minor children, and parents) of U.S. citizens are always available and there are no numerical caps. Otherwise, preference is as follows:
First: Unmarried adult children of U.S. Citizens and their minor children, if any (currently capped at 23,400 per year)
Second (currently capped at 114,200 total for both A and B combined):
A: Spouses of lawful permanent residents and minor children of lawful permanent residents
B: Unmarried adult children of lawful permanent residents
Third: Married children of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children (currently capped at 23,400)
Fourth: Adult siblings of U.S. citizens age 21 and over, and their spouses and minor children (currently capped at 65,000)
Thus, while the system allows for relatives to migrate to the United States for family reunification, it is far from an open-door policy. In fact, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), there are backlogs for family-sponsored visas ranging from two to 23 years depending on country of origin, family member being sponsored, and status of the sponsor. For example, MPI reports a backlog of 22 years for unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens coming from Mexico, and a seven-year backlog for the same group if they are coming from China.
While that covers some of the basics of family-based migration, the U.S. process for family reunification is complex. For example, the process only grants conditional residence to incoming spouses of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents in cases where the couple has been married for less than two years. Additionally, different sets of rules apply to family that accompany employment-based migrants and temporary workers.
So, is the United States allowing in a greater share of family-based migrants than some of our Western allies? Yes and no. According to a recent report by Kate Hooper and Brian Salant of MPI, between 2012 and 2016, almost two-thirds of permanent-residence grants in the United States were for family migration, compared to less than 30 percent in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. However, when these data are adjusted for population size, the United States permits family migrants at a similar rate as Australia and Canada.
For those families who have been separated through the often-daunting challenges of immigrating, or seeking refuge or asylum, our current system of family-based migration serves, even in its complicated way, to bring family back together—to reunify them.
The Trump administration’s recommended cuts and push to end family-based migration is based on claims that it “endangers national security… strains local state and federal resources, and imperils the economic security of vulnerable American workers.” These claims will continue to be debated in weeks and, likely, years to come. In the meantime, I hope this brief primer sheds some light on the heated debate that currently surrounds family-based migration.
Now, while I leave you pondering the ins and outs of family migration, I’ll be calling up my family to figure out what it took for them to get here.
This article was authored by Kassira Absar, former Research Associate for the APM Research Lab.