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Immigrant visa backlogs: How will reform plans address long waits?

Nations with current longest waits for family-sponsored based immigrant visas: The priority dates shown are when applicants now up for processing filed petitions.
Nations with current longest waits for family-sponsored based immigrant visas: The priority dates shown are when applicants now up for processing filed petitions. Source: Visa Bulletin for February 2013, U.S. Department of State

The immigration reform plans President Obama and the U.S. Senate proposed this week would change the way this country legally admits immigrants and workers. And that means tackling the problem of visa backlogs.

The process for entering the United States via the family-sponsored visa category is onerous to applicants - especially to would-be immigrants from certain countries. In the family-sponsored category, the Philippines consistently tops the list for the nation in which immigrants sponsored by siblings and other relatives must wait longest to enter the United States. It's not unusual for them to wait two decades or more.

Mexico runs a close second. While the waits aren't quite as bad for immigrants from China and India, they are still excruciatingly long. Same goes for other hopeful immigrants, particularly those from Asian countries; of the top eight nations with the most people on waiting lists to enter the U.S., six of these are Asian countries.

What do President Obama, and the bipartisan Senate coalition, plan to do about it? First, from the White House plan:

The proposal seeks to eliminate existing backlogs in the family-sponsored immigration system by recapturing unused visas and temporarily increasing annual visa numbers.  The proposal also raises existing annual country caps from 7 percent to 15 percent for the family-sponsored immigration system.  It also treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner. The proposal also revises current unlawful presence bars and provides broader discretion to waive bars in cases of hardship.

The Senate plan acknowledges that the current system "has created substantial visa backlogs which force families to live apart, which incentivizes illegal immigration." It continues:

Our new immigration system must be more focused on recognzing the important characteristics which will help build the American economy and strengthen American families. Additionally, we must reduce backlogs in the family and employment visa categories so that future immigrants view our future legal immigration system as the exclusive means for entry into the United States.

That's short on details, but it's a start. How bad are the backlogs? Here are the priority dates listed in the February 2013 Visa Bulletin from the U.S. State Department; it indicates whose turn is finally up and who has been waiting the longest:

1) Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens from the Philippines, a wait of more than 23 years (petitions filed June 1, 1989).

2) Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens from the Philippines, a wait of more than 20 years (petitions filed August 22, 1992)

3) Unmarried adult (21 and over) sons and daughters of U.S. legal permanent residents from Mexico, a wait of more than 20 years (petitions filed December 15, 1992)

4) Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens from Mexico, a wait approaching  20 years (petitions filed March 8, 1993)

These  waits are so long because the United States allots every nation the same percentage of visas each year from a pool of available family and employer-based visas. Among immigrant communities with large populations in the U.S., there is greater demand for family reunification. Hopeful immigrants in these countries  are competing for the same number of visas as people in countries where there is less demand, so they wait longer. 

What the bulletin shows are priority dates - the dates on which petitions were filed, as visas technically become available to those waiting. The dates are subject to change, however. That means some who thought their number was up must keep waiting. 

Immigrants who are defined as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens - spouses, parents, and children under 21 -  are exempt from the limits. But others must wait until their priority date comes up.

See the entire Visa Bulletin for February 2013 here.

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