Five Million waiting on Family Visas

By Jessica M. Vaughan on May 19, 2009

For the first time in over a decade, the State Department has released basic information on the number of people on the waiting list for family-based immigrants, reporting that more than 2.7 million people are awaiting interviews overseas for their immigrant visa. In addition, there are another 2.2 million people are waiting in the United States for USCIS to process their family visa application. With visa demand from eligible people now more than 20 times what our law allows in annual issuances, it seems past time to eliminate some of the categories – the current system is unfair to applicants and their sponsors, encourages illegal immigration, and wastes government resources.

The State Department’s 2.7 million applicants are waiting to be processed at a consulate overseas in one of the family visa categories, where annual issuances are limited by law to about 226,000. This waiting list does not include those who have applied in the unlimited categories for spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens, who in recent years have numbered about 500,000 per year; nor does it include employment, humanitarian and lottery winners.

The State Department reports the following number of applicants in each family category:

Unmarried Sons & Daughters (age 21+) of U.S. Citizens 228,787
Spouses and Children (under 21) of Green Card Holders 322,212
Unmarried Sons & Daughters of Green Card Holders  481,726
Married Sons & Daughters of Citizens  484,230
Brothers & Sisters of Adult Citizens 1,206,397
TOTAL 2,723,352


State also reported on the top ten countries of family visa applicants:


Mexico 961,744
Philippines 401,849
Dominican Republic 136,070
China 132,325
India 115,394
Vietnam 109,910
Bangladesh 50,275
Haiti 50,029
El Salvador 48,776
Pakistan 45,905
Others 671,075
TOTAL 2,723,352


The “waiting list”, which refers to those cases where the petition from the U.S. sponsor has been approved, but who cannot proceed with processing because of statutory limits on the total number of visas and the per-country limits, should not be confused with the processing “backlog”, which refers to those who have submitted an application for some kind of immigration benefit, but have not yet been processed due to agency staffing and resource limitations. The waiting list occurs because there is greater demand for visas than there are spots available each year. The backlog occurs because the immigration agencies cannot keep up with the workload. The waiting list is a policy issue; the backlog is mainly a management issue.

The waiting times vary according to country and category. The shortest wait is for spouses of LPRs. Those now receiving green cards in that category applied in December of 2004, except for Mexicans, who submitted their application in May, 2002. The longest wait is for Filipino siblings of U.S. citizens; those now getting visas applied in August, 1986.

These numbers underline the case for eliminating the family 3rd and 4th preference categories, for adult married children and siblings of citizens, as was proposed by the Jordan Commission, and as has been proposed by Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia. These applicants make up more than half the waiting list. They are not nuclear family members, but individuals who already have established lives and ties in their home countries. Moreover, it seems like a cruel joke to tell applicants that they qualify for a green card, take their application fees, and then tell them it will be years before they can claim it. In addition, processing millions of petitions for visas that are decades away from issuance is a waste of government resources. There is also some evidence that maintaining such a large waiting list of “pending” applications creates an incentive or rationalization for illegal immigration and pressure for government agencies to provide benefits for this population.