The majority of immigrants who obtain a “green card”—a visa which grants lawful permanent residency—do so through sponsorship by a family member or sponsorship by an employer who is already in the United States. After five years as a lawful permanent resident, an immigrant can apply for U.S. citizenship. But a tremendous backlog in processing visa applications is putting families in the painful position of having to choose whether to follow the law and be separated for up to twenty years in some cases, or to break the law in order to be together.
There are many different categories of visas for people who want to become permanent residents of the U.S. Which type of visa a person applies for is determined by their relationship to the family member already in the U.S. who is sponsoring him or her, or the type of work they are coming to the U.S. to perform.
Many visa categories have a quota or “cap,” which limits the number of people who can receive that kind of visa to enter the U.S. each year. Family reunification is the largest avenue through which individuals qualify for permanent residence. Family-based immigration is split into two major categories.
- Immediate relatives - This category is unlimited, and includes spouses of citizens, unmarried children under 21 of citizens, or parents of U.S. citizens who are over 21.
- Family preference - This category includes unmarried children over 21 of U.S. citizens (cap: 23,400); unmarried children over 21 of green card holders who are not yet citizens (114,200); married children of U.S. citizens (23,400); and siblings (65,000).
It might seem as if there are a lot of visas in the family preference category, but see this flowchart (PDF, 1 page) to find out how long the waiting period for a permanent residency visa can be for different people trying to immigrate to the United States
Due to application processing backlogs, the wait for a permanent residency visa for those who fall into the “Family Preference” category ranges from two or three years to over twenty, depending on an applicant’s sub-sub-category and country of origin.