Is Unifying Families Really an Immigration Priority?

Most people who immigrate to the United States are able to do so because they have a close relative in the United States who petitions for them or because they have a job skill that is needed by a United States employer. The process, in either case, is a lengthy one, usually taking several years from start to finish. The wait is discouraging and impractical for prospective immigrants who are needed by United States employers; but for close family members, the wait is agonizing and, perhaps, impossible. In his State of the Union speech, President Obama reiterated that immigration reform is on his 2010 agenda. With the process of immigrating to join family members in the United States in dire need of an overhaul, this year we may see some changes.

The recent devastation of Haiti brought international adoption, along with related immigration issues, to the forefront of the news. United States couples who have waited years for their adopted Haitian children to clear the immigration process and come home to the United States have been the subject of these happy news stories. Fortunately, the governments of Haiti and the United States are deviating from usual procedures required by United States immigration law by now moving as many children as possible out of Haiti to their new adoptive families. Required processing will be completed after the children arrive in the United States. In the absence of such a crisis, though, orphaned children, often already adopted overseas by American families, typically wait for years in institutions while the immigration process grinds on.

All relatives trying to immigrate to the United States – not just adopted children – are hurt by the slow-moving immigration process. Expediting that processing requires a re-engineering of procedures followed by the Department of Homeland Security and by the Department of State at United States consulates abroad. Our government’s ability to make positive, efficient changes in immigration procedures is evident in its handling of the Haitian adoptions.

Raising the number of family immigrants that we admit annually to the United States is another way to expedite the immigration process. Because the number of permanent resident visas allocated to relatives of United States citizens and permanent residents is so limited, applicants typically wait in a queue for years until a visa becomes available. One of the longest waits is by brothers and sisters of United States citizens, who generally wait about fifteen years from the time they apply for residency to approval of permanent resident status. Perhaps the most discouraging wait, however, is by spouses of lawful permanent residents, who now wait about five years to join their spouses in the United States. Bear in mind that it is close family members who are affected by the visa limits since more distant relatives – grandparents, aunts, uncles cousins, etc. – are not eligible for residency based on a family relationship.

Promoting family unity has long been an underlying policy of our immigration law. If this policy is of real value to us, we need immigration procedures that demonstrate its value. When Congress tackles immigration reform this year, please contact your representatives and urge them make it easier for relatives of our friends and neighbors to immigrate. The slow processing and the limited number of persons admitted annually are subjects in desperate need of attention.

This article should not be relied upon as legal advice. Consult an immigration attorney for advice specific to your situation.