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A clash over over family-sponsored immigrant visas

Long waits: The priority dates shown are when applicants now up for processing filed petitions. The categories for siblings and adult married children of U.S. citizens, with the longest waits, are the two listed at the bottom.
Long waits: The priority dates shown are when applicants now up for processing filed petitions. The categories for siblings and adult married children of U.S. citizens, with the longest waits, are the two listed at the bottom.
Source: Visa Bulletin for March 2013, U.S. Department of State

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As the U.S. Senate hashes out the details over comprehensive immigration overhaul, one proposed change involves excluding some relatives of U.S. citizens from visas.

The two categories on the table are visas for siblings and adult (over-21) married children of U.S. citizens. Current immigration law allows citizens to petition for both.

The immigrants who fall into these categories include people like Irma Guzman, the older sister of Miguel Angel Guzman, a 33-year-old construction worker who lives in the Orange County town of Lake Forest. Miguel Angel Guzman and other younger siblings entered legally in 1992 when he was 12, sponsored by his legal resident father. 

But Miguel Angel's sister, Irma, was already over 21 and married, and couldn't legally join them. When their father became a U.S. citizen in 2008, he began the sponsorship process for his daughter. Since then, she's been waiting in their hometown in the central Mexican state of Michoacán to come legally as the adult married child of a citizen — a process that can take close to 20 years for people waiting in Mexico. 

Miguel Angel wishes things were different. Drug-related crime in Michoacán has been on the rise, and he knows that his parents worry.

“My sister and my mom, they talk pretty much every other day on the phone," he says. " I know they miss each other a whole lot.”

The idea of eliminating some family visa categories is being championed by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the eight senators working on a reform bill. It’s come up in past immigration reform talks, too, says UC Irvine political scientist Louis DeSipio.

“What Congress is trying to do isn’t necessarily to pick on the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens," says DeSipio, "but instead to sort of narrow the scope of family so that over time, the volume of immigration to the United States diminishes."

It could also free up room for more employment-based visas, as lawmakers have suggested. But barring these relatives is something that many immigrant advocates find offensive.

Christine Samala directs 18 Million Rising, an Asian-American civic engagement group. She’s a child of Filipino immigrants who thrived with help from extended family.

“Crucial to, pretty much, an individual’s success is the ability to have a community and a network," says Samala, who grew up outside New York City. "When I was growing up, my parents worked a lot, and worked really hard. My aunts and uncles lived nearby, and at certain points even lived with us, and they helped raise me. They helped fix the cars. They just helped with a general sense of stability.”

The two categories in question represent only about 90,000 visas annually. But they pose some of the longest waits for legal entry. In the Philippines, they exceed 20 years. The wait is similarly long for hopeful immigrants from Mexico; it's also especially long for those coming from China and India.

Each nation is allotted the same percentage of visas each year in these categories, regardless of demand from any one nation or how large its immigrant population is in the U.S. The result is that there is simply more demand for family reunification than there are visas to accommodate everyone who qualifies.

That’s one reason why Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration restrictions, thinks eliminating siblings and adult married children from eligibility is a good idea.

“If you let in the adult brother of an American citizen who immigrated earlier, that brother will have, say, a wife and three kids," Krikorian says. "If they then immigrate, the wife has her own parents and her own siblings, who have their own kids, and you end up with this endless chain.”

A provision limiting family-sponsored visas was part of a failed 2007 immigration reform bill; it’s still unclear if one will be included this time around. Reform proposals from the Senate and House are expected by mid-April.