The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 6, 2018

Justifications for slashing family-based visas are not supported by evidence

February 6, 2018

After referring to family-based immigration as “chain migration,” the president said in his 2018 State of the Union speech that “a single immigrant could bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.” To address this, the president outlined a vision also present in the proposed RAISE Act, which would greatly reduce authorized immigration to the US.

Family-based immigration represents two-thirds of legal permanent migration to the United States and has been an important part of our immigration policy for decades. The origins of family-based immigration can be traced to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed strict nationality quotas and explicit racially exclusive policies (e.g., the Asian Exclusion Act), from the 1924 Immigration Act.

But the justifications for reversing this long-standing immigration policy are rooted in misconceptions that are not supported by evidence.

Misconception: Family-based visas lead to an overwhelming influx of immigrants

Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, has noted how the term chain migration “shifts our mental images away from families reunited in a country offering a fresh start, and gets us to think instead of immigration as a malign chain reaction, an overwhelming and unstoppable process.”

In this way, rhetoric can depict family-based immigration and reunification as an immediate process with explosive effects. In reality, the process is painfully slow.

Family-based immigration is made possible through five broad permanent admissions categories. The first grouping is immediate relatives of US citizens—that is, children younger than 21, spouses, and parents. (The White House immigration framework argues that current policies bring in too many “distant relatives” and proposes limiting sponsorship for only individuals’ spouses and children younger than 18.)

The other four categories fall under “family preference” and include adult unmarried children of US citizens; married children of US citizens, along with their spouses and children; and siblings of US citizens, along with their spouses and children. Spouses, minor children, and unmarried children of legal permanent residents fall into another “family preference” category.

Although immediate relative visas have no annual cap, a maximum of 480,000 visas are available for family members. To determine the number of family-preference visas issued each year, the number of visas issued to immediate relatives is subtracted from the 480,000. For example, in fiscal year 2015, about 69 percent of family-based admissions went to US citizens’ spouses and children. Immigration policy also requires that at least 226,000 visas be designated for family-preference categories so that family visas are not just issued to immediate relatives.

In addition to these numerical limits, US immigration policy limits legal permanent resident admissions from each country to a maximum of 7 percent of the total number of family-based and employment-based admissions for that year. Immediate relatives are exempt from “per country ceilings,” as well as 75 percent of visas slotted for spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents.

Because the number of eligible people applying for family-preference visas exceeds the number of visas available because of annual numerical caps and per country ceilings, there is a backlog or waiting queue for family-preference visas every year. As of November 2015, the queue for qualified foreign nationals with processed petitions for family-preference visas included 4.5 million people, with waits as long as 23 years for those from the countries with the most petitions.

Misconception: Family-based immigration leads to a low-skilled labor force dependent on government benefits

Another assumption behind the White House immigration framework is that family reunification in immigration policy “increases the deficit.” That is, family members of US citizens will, on average, be a burden to the US and its taxpayers by leaning on “federal welfare and government benefits.”

While we need more information and research on the economic contributions of family-based immigrants, we do know that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWORA) of 1996 created a five-year ban on social services so that new immigrants are excluded from federal welfare programs in their first five years living in the United States. And even when immigrant families are eligible for low-income family assistance programs, many never apply for or access them for a variety of reasons.

Some states may opt to provide benefits for new immigrants, but these are limited. For example, in 2016, no states provided cash assistance during the five-year ban, and only a handful provided food assistance for lawful permanent residents adults. Immigrants tend to bring a greater net cost to state and local governments, but this is largely explained by the presence of children and their use of public education.

In the long run, states’ investments in immigrants and their children’s education pay off. My colleagues also argue that immigrants will be important for economic growth as the overall population ages, especially in places like the Great Lakes region.

Immigration reform should be based on evidence

Labeling family-based immigration “chain migration” dehumanizes the long, complicated, and psychologically distressing process of sponsoring a family member’s journey to the United States.

It is true that the current immigration system is “by necessity, exclusionary” and desperately needs reform, but these changes should be based on evidence and an appreciation for immigrants’ social, civic, economic, and cultural contributions to the country

The Tanbal family and the Haj Kalif family meet for the first time in the Haj Kalif family's new home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on on July 26, 2015. Both families are refugees from Syria. Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images.


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