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The importance of family is a central tenet of American culture, and the value itself is woven into the U.S. Immigration system. Family immigration for Immediate Relatives (IRs) of U.S. Citizens (USC) is the fastest immigration process available. USCs and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR) may petition for their family members with few exceptions. For family members that are not IRs, the preference system and priority date establish the time it will take for a family member to immigrate.
US Citizens may petition for:
LPRs may petition for:
Immediate relatives (IRs) of U.S. Citizens (USCs) are given the highest priority and visa numbers are immediately available for them. IRs include:
The U.S. Immigration system has an annual cap on the number of visas issued per year. For family sponsored immigrants, the annual cap is 480,000 visas. IRs are not subject to a limit within the overall cap; however, the number of IRs receiving visas is subtracted from the annual cap and the remaining visas are issued based upon a preference system. For U.S. citizens, sons and daughters that are married and/or over 21 years old and siblings fall into the preference system. For LPRs, or green card holders, all family members fall into the preference system.
Eligible family members that are not immediate relatives are covered by the family preference system. See the table below. Relatives in the preference categories must wait until a visa number is available. The time for visa numbers to become available varies based upon preference, country, and priority date. No country is favored over another, but each is limited to 7% of the total cap for independent countries and 2% for colonies or dependent areas. Visa allocations are generally charged to the country of birth, not the country of nationality or citizenship, with a few exceptions. If a country has more applicants than available visa numbers, it is considered oversubscribed. Countries that are currently oversubscribed include China (mainland born), India, Mexico, and Philippines.
|First||Unmarried sons and daughters of US Citizens.||23,400 + unused 4th preference|
|Second||Spouses and unmarried children of Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs).||114,200 + excess over 226,000 + unused 1st preference|
|Third||Married sons and daughters of US Citizens.||23,400 + unused 1st and 2nd preference|
|Fourth||Brothers and sisters of US Citizens.||65,000 + any unused from preferences 1-3|
The U.S. Department of State publishes an updated Visa Bulletin monthly that provides the current cut-off dates for each preference category. Family petitions with priority dates before the cut-off dates are entitled to a visa number. The priority date is generally the date the Petition for Alien Relative is properly filed with USCIS.
The Visa Bulletin indicates the current processing times. To read the Visa Bulletin, find the cell where the country of birth—or country of chargeability—of the beneficiary coincides with the preference. If the country of chargeability is not listed, then it falls under the “All…Except Those Listed” column. The date in the cell is the current cut-off date, i.e. petitions with priority dates before this date are entitled to a visa number. The cut-off date is also an indicator of the wait time for the country and preference category, e.g. if it’s currently April 2015 and the cut-off date is April 2013, then there is approximately a two year wait time for a visa number to be allocated. Remember, this does not apply to immediate relatives (IRs) who receive a visa number immediately.
The process of petitioning for a family member begins with the Petition for Alien Relative. The date the petition is properly filed becomes the priority date. If your relative is abroad or ineligible for Adjustment of Status (AOS), then once the petition is approved, it is forwarded to the National Visa Center (NVC). The NVC handles pre-interview processes and corresponds with the attorney of record. Once all fees have been paid, the required documents submitted, and the visa number becomes available, then the NVC will forward the case to the appropriate consular post—usually the place of last residence abroad—and an appointment for the beneficiary will be scheduled. Once the interview is conducted and the evidence considered, the immigrant visa (IV) will be approved or denied. When an IV is approved, the recipient must enter the U.S. within 6 months.
If the family member is lawfully in the U.S. and a visa number is immediately available, i.e. the priority date is current—in practice this is only the case for immediate relatives (IRs)—then the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status can be filed with the Petition for Alien Relative. If the visa number is not immediately available, then the application to adjust status can be filed once the priority date is reached. In some cases the circumstances will change, e.g. a petitioning LPR could become a US Citizen, in which case the spouse would go from 2nd preference to IR, with the result that a visa number is immediately available.
No one who gained entry to the U.S. without inspection (EWI), as a stowaway, or in transit without a visa is eligible for AOS. A family member who is the beneficiary of an approved Petition for Alien Relative, but who entered without inspection, will be required to proceed via consular processing as described for family members abroad. In such cases, there likely will be bars to overcome such as bars due to unlawful presence. However, in some cases bars due to unlawful presence can be addressed stateside and then the beneficiary would go to the consulate interview once it is scheduled as opposed to addressing the bar while waiting abroad.