Helping your family immigrate to the United States

If you are a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident, you can sponsor other family members in their United States immigration. On average, a U.S. citizen sponsors about 3.5 family members, making family-based migration the largest group of new permanent residents each year. Immigration has a long history of being family-centric, but it wasn’t until the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1965 that established family connections as the primary way of entry into the United States. 

If you have been following the status of immigration in the United States, you may hear of a shift from family-based to a merit-based system of preferring highly-skilled immigrants over those with family ties. However, family-based sponsorship currently still holds priority. 

Who is eligible for a family-based visa?

Currently, only a few categories are eligible for a family-based visa. 

U.S. citizens can sponsor:

  • Spouse
  • Son or daughter adopted or biological
  • Parents 
  • Brother or sister

Legal permanent residents can sponsor:

  • Spouse
  • Unmarried son or daughter, adopted or biological

These categories are based on a close family relationship with a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident and are not subjected to a cap on the number of visas given out each fiscal year. 

For more distant and specific family relationships, there are limitations on the number of visas given out per year, and some categories take more precedence over others. These categories are:

  • Family First Preference (F1): Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children, if any. 
  • Family Second Preference (F2): Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (age 21 and over) of legal permanent residents. At least seventy-seven percent of all visas available for this category will go to the spouses and children; the remainder is allocated to unmarried sons and daughters. 
  • Family Third Preference (F3): Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children. 
  • Family Fourth Preference (F4): Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children, provided the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age. 

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws are not eligible for family-based visas. In addition to the limit of family-preference visas, there can be no more than 7 percent of the visas given to any single country per fiscal year. 

According to USCIS, “all categories of family preference immigrant visas are issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed until the numerical limit for the category is reached. The filing date of a petition becomes the applicant’s priority date. Immigrant visas cannot be issued until an applicant’s priority date is reached. In certain heavily oversubscribed categories, there may be a waiting period of several years before a priority date is reached. Check the Visa Bulletin for the latest priority dates.”

What’s involved in sponsoring a family member?

Your first step to sponsoring your family member is to file a Petition for Alien Relative, Form I-130. After USCIS approves your petition, the National Visa Center (NVC), will instruct you on the next steps and the necessary forms and fees to be submitted. Required documentation includes an Affidavit of Support, additional application forms, civil documents proving a family relationship, and more. 

An Affidavit of Support requires you to prove that you can financially support the petitioning family members. One way is to verify this is to show that your annual income is no less than 125% of the federal poverty level. The purpose of this is to provide the evidence necessary to establish that your family members will not become a financial burden to the U.S. government. 

Other required documentation may include:

  • Passport(s) valid for six months beyond the intended date of entry into the United States
  • Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa, and Alien Registration Application.
  • Two (2) 2×2 photographs. 
  • Civil Documents for the applicant. See Documents the Applicant Must Submit for more specific information about documentation requirements, including information on which documents may need to be translated. 
  • Completed Medical Examination Forms 

Once all the necessary documents are received by the NVC, the U.S. Embassy, or Consulate interviews all applicants to determine eligibility. Due to the high demand for family-preference visas, there are often long waiting periods to obtain them. The visa approval process could take years or decades. This timeline often depends on factors such as the applicant’s relationship with the sponsor, as spouse and children are generally approved faster than other family preference categories. As an example, in January 2018, USCIS was processing visa applications of brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens who filed more than 13 years ago.

Helping your family integrate successfully into American culture

If your family members are approved for their visa; congratulations! While the visa process was most likely long and occasionally frustrating, you and your family member have accomplished a big task. But, as you might have experienced personally, just getting to the United States may have been the easy part. It’s learning to live in America that might prove challenging. 

Studies have shown that ethnic communities and families are critical to the success of a positive integration. With a support system already established in the United States, your family will have a better chance of integrating faster, becoming employed, and even starting their own businesses. Whether you were born in the U.S. or immigrated a long time ago, you can still help your family members to adjust their expectations of life in the United States. Your experiences and understanding of where they have come from can help them to keep an open mind to the cultural differences they will experience. 

Help your family’s transition by encouraging them to learn English even before they move to the U.S. and continue their language skills upon arrival. There are many free English language classes around the country and in the Oklahoma City metro area. Remember that your family members will need your time and attention when they first arrive, as they will most likely go through various degrees of culture shock. You may be able to offer guidance through your own experiences. 

Here are some additional tips to help your family feel at home in their new country: 

  • Help your family member establish a routine that was similar to their life in their home country. If your spouse always made family dinners on Sundays, help them to keep the tradition. Show them where they can find ingredients from their home country and don’t be afraid to invite some new American friends over to share the meal. 
  • Encourage your family to make new friends. One way to help is by introducing them to Meetup, a social app for groups that share similar interests and hobbies. 
  • Share your favorite American T.V. shows, movies, music, and books. This is a great way to learn more about the language and cultural references, while also providing your family member with something to talk about with the new American friends they will make. 

The future of family-based U.S. immigration

In President Trump’s State of the Union address on January 2018, he called for an end to family-based immigration and stated, “…a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives…without any regard for skill, merit or the safety of American people.” 

Trump has long advocated for an immigration system that rewards visas and permanent status on a merit basis and to put an end to the current immigration program that prioritizes family reunification. Trump’s proposes, “Under our plan, those who meet education and work requirements and show good moral character would be able to become full citizens of the United States over a 12-year period.” 

Under the proposal, the more than 4 million people currently waiting for family and employment-based green cards would have their immigration applications eliminated and would need to re-apply under the new merit-based system.

Merit-based immigration is often a term used to describe immigrants who are admitted based on their age, English proficiency, education, and advanced job skills. This category is not usually applied to those who have emigrated to the U.S. based on their family ties. However, recent Census data has shown that immigrants who received their green card due to a family sponsorship or the Diversity Visa are more likely to have a college or graduate degree than a native-born U.S. citizen. 

As of September 2019, Trump’s proposal for a new merit-based legal immigration system has yet to be turned into legislation and will need to be approved by Congress to take effect. As the 2020 Presidential election year draws closer, proposed changes to the current immigration system will continue to be a hot topic for all presidential hopefuls.

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