Sibling Immigration: A Losing Proposition

By Patrick McHugh on April 1, 1998

As the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform pointed out in its 1997 final report, "The extraordinarily large waiting list for siblings of U.S. citizens... undermines the integrity of the legal immigration system."

The Family Fourth Preference Visa category was designed to enable U.S. citizens to sponsor their brothers and sisters (as well as the siblings' spouses and children) for permanent residence in the United States. Admissions in this category are limited to 65,000 per year, but as of January 1997 there were just over 1.5 million people on the waiting list. As a result, applicants must wait years — decades in the countries with the most demand — before they can immigrate. This, combined with the fact that applicants must be at least 21 years old before they can be sponsored, means that immigrants in this category are likely to be substantially older than those entering under different programs and to enter after their most productive years. Therefore, Fourth Preference immigrants are more likely, and in some cases virtually guaranteed, to use more in public services than they pay in taxes, thus having a net negative fiscal impact on the United States.

In addition, because of the long waiting lists and low life expectancies in some countries, prospective immigrants may not even live long enough to legally enter the United States. In the Philippines, for example, this program is so oversubscribed that the waiting list is nearly 60 years long, though the wait could be shorter if applicants drop out of the system or die. If a prospective immigrant applied today at age 21 (the minimum age), he or she may not be eligible to immigrate until approximately age 81. The average life expectancy in the Philippines, however, is only 63 for men and 68 for women. While this is undoubtedly frustrating for applicants, concern for the national interest demands a look at the fiscal impact these immigrants have on the United States.

Research by Guillermina Jasso, Douglas Massey, Mark R. Rosenzweig, and James P. Smith for the New Immigrant Survey (NIS) Pilot Study (reviewed in Immigration Review No.30) found that while most (65.8 percent) of the sibling immigrants they studied had the equivalent of a high-school diploma or better, a sizable group (34.2 percent) had no more than 11 years of schooling. According to data from last year's National Research Council study, The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, high-school dropouts will have a net negative fiscal impact regardless of their age when they enter the United States. Even if a sibling immigrant without a high-school degree arrived at age 21, at the start of his or her most productive years (which could not happen given the size of the waiting list), he or she would have an average net negative fiscal impact of approximately $100,000 over the course of a lifetime. The negative effect increases as the immigrant's age at arrival increases, peaking at age 54, where the average negative fiscal impact reaches nearly $175,000. It slowly decreases after that, but remains over $100,000 until age 75. With the exception of mainland-born Chinese women, however, the life expectancies in the countries with the most applicants in this category are less than 75 years.

Data from The New Americans also show that even those immigrants who have received a high-school diploma need to arrive between the ages of nine and 20 in order to have a net positive fiscal impact. Because siblings can't even be sponsored for admission until they are at least 21 years old, and because the waiting list is estimated to be at least 10 years even for countries that are not oversubscribed, these immigrants also are virtually guaranteed to have a net negative lifetime fiscal impact. This impact is less than $15,000 if the immigrant enters before the age of 30, but grows rapidly after that, peaking from ages 64 to 71 where the average net negative fiscal impact is over $200,000.

For immigrants with more than a high-school education the picture is somewhat better, but they still are likely to produce a net negative lifetime fiscal impact. Those who arrive before age 48 have a net positive fiscal effect. In fact, according to The New Americans study, if an immigrant with at least some college arrives in the United States in his or her early thirties, he or she could have a net positive fiscal impact in the neighborhood of $170,000 over the course of his or her lifetime. This potential positive fiscal effect declines rapidly as an immigrant's age at arrival increases; those who arrive at age 49 or older have an average negative net lifetime fiscal impact, reaching nearly $140,000 if the immigrant arrives at age 70.

Sibling immigrants are unlikely to arrive before they are in their mid forties, however. In fact, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform found that more than half of the siblings and their spouses admitted in FY 1996 were above the age of 45. Thus, at best, college-educated sibling immigrants will have a relatively small net positive fiscal impact, nowhere near enough to offset the negative effects of their less-educated counterparts.

The New Americans study also looked at the fiscal effects of immigrants and their descendants for the 300-year period after the initial immigrants' arrival. Immigrants with less than a high-school education would need to arrive by age 22 and those with a high school education by age 34 to create, with their descendants, a net positive fiscal impact over the next 300 years. Because of the nature of the sibling category, however, most applicants will be much older. Thus, again, this stream of immigration virtually is guaranteed to produce a net negative fiscal impact for the next three centuries. Those immigrants with more than a high school education and their descendants would have a net positive fiscal effect averaging $1,000 per year if the original immigrant arrived in his or her early twenties, but this effect declines rapidly as the immigrant's age increases until, at age 49, the impact becomes negative.

While the Fourth Preference category accounts for only a small portion of the total number of immigrants each year — about 65,000 out of nearly 900,000 — it may be the most expendable of all the legal immigration channels because it brings in immigrants with the most distant ties of all the family categories and with the greatest likelihood to result in a negative fiscal impact (with the exception of refugees). At any event, as in the case of the Philippines, it seems a cruel hoax to offer new citizens the opportunity to sponsor their extended family for immigration while subjecting them to such long waits that the prospective immigrant is likely to die before being allowed to enter the United States.