Family Based Immigration


An introduction to the family preference system.

Much of the immigration to the U.S. that occurs is through sponsorship by a family relative. Family-based immigration allows for close relatives of U.S. Citizens and legal permanent residents to rejoin their families here in the U.S.

However, the system is based on categories, each of which has strict annual limits in the number of immigrants allowed each year. This creates backlogs, some of them quite lengthy, in some of these family categories.

The priority is given to “Immediate relatives”. This category does not have any limit or cap on the number of visas and therefore, there is no “waiting period” other than the amount of time the Department of Homeland Security (or the U.S. consulate abroad) takes to process these visas. These “immediate relative” categories are:

• Spouses of U.S. citizens;

• Unmarried minor children of U.S. citizens; and

• Parents of U.S. citizens.

Obtaining a green card through marriage.

In the case of marriage, an application must be submitted along with documents to prove the validity of the marriage and an interview takes place at the DHS office, if they are in the U.S. It generally takes approximately six months to obtain conditional permanent residence for the spouse. Conditional permanent residence is granted for two years.

In the case of all immediate relatives in the U.S., an application for a green card can be processed here. It is not necessary for the relative to be in legal status, but they must have come to the U.S. legally, with a valid visa. If they crossed the border without a visa, they do not qualify.

If the spouse is outside the U.S., then an application is filed here and once approved, the relative goes through “consular processing” back home in their home country.

Obtaining permanent residence through family members other than spouses.

You can sponsor other members of your family besides those in this “immediate relative” category, but in each case there will be a long wait for them to get a green card. The other relative categories have limits on the number of visas and therefore, there are waiting periods, which can run from five to ten years or more.

These relative categories are:

• Adult children (unmarried) of U.S. citizens (1st preference category)

• Spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents (2nd preference)

• Adult children (married) of U.S. citizens (3rd preference category)

• Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens ( 4th preference category)

The waiting periods for each of these visas can be determined (approximately) by checking the U.S. Department of State website or the Visa Bulletin which they publish.

The U.S. Department of State visa bulletinlists each category and the date on which an individual applied in each category who is being processed for a green card currently. From this date, one can try to extrapolate how long it will take for an application filed today to take before a relative qualifies for permanent residence.

As you’ll see when you check this bulletin, there are long waits for every category of family sponsorship. In addition to per category limits to family-based immigration, there are also per country limits.

Because of higher numbers of immigration to the U.S., persons coming from the countries of Mexico, the Philippines, China, and India have an even longer wait than those from the rest of the world.

While it may seem absurd to file to sponsor your relative given that the wait is over five years, there still are good reasons to do so. If the annual limits per category are raised in the future, this waiting period will decrease.

In any case, the sooner you file to bring your relative, the sooner the person will join you here as a green card holder.

More Information:

  • Family of U.S. Citizens (USCIS)
  • Family-Based Immigrant Visas (US Department of State)