January 17, 2018

How Chain Migration Works


Key Takeaways

  • The majority of immigrants to the U.S. get their green cards because they have a family member who is a U.S. citizen or holds a green card.
  • There is no annual cap on green cards issued to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens: spouses; minor children; and parents of adult citizens.
  • A finite number of visas are available annually for adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens and spouses and children of green card holders.

The Immigration and Nationality Act, passed in 1952 and amended numerous times since, provides the foundation for U.S. immigration policy. It allows three major groups of people to get immigrant visas, known as green cards: family-sponsored immigrants; employment-based immigrants; and “diversity” immigrants. A green card lets someone live permanently in the U.S. and eventually apply for citizenship, generally after a waiting period.

Family-Sponsored Migration: No Cap vs Capped

Family-Sponsored Migration

The colloquial term “chain migration” refers to an immigrant gaining either U.S. citizenship or a green card and petitioning for his or her family members to be let into the U.S., who then petition for their family members, and so on. Family-based immigration has been a key component of U.S. immigration policy since the INA was first enacted.

The law limits the number of green cards issued to applicants from each category. It generally provides up to 480,000 green cards for family-sponsored immigrants, 140,000 green cards for employment-based immigrants, and 50,000 green cards through the diversity visa program, issued via a lottery to immigrants from countries with low rates of emigration to the U.S. There is no cap on the number of green cards available to refugees and asylum seekers, who make up the other significant category of green card recipients every year.

Green cards issued to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens do not count against the family-sponsored immigrant cap. So the number of green cards issued every year to family members of U.S. citizens significantly exceeds the 480,000-visa limit. In keeping with the limits set by law, the majority of green cards are issued to family-sponsored immigrants. Although the precise numbers vary by year, family-sponsored immigrants generally receive around 70 percent of the green cards issued annually.

Family-Based Immigration

An unlimited number of green cards may be issued to immediate relatives of citizens. Immediate relatives include the minor children – younger than 21 years old – and spouses of citizens, and the parents of adult – at least 21 years old – citizens.

The INA also allows U.S. citizens and green card holders to petition for green cards for a wider circle of relatives. These categories are subject to a cap. Eligible family members include unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens, spouses and minor children of green card holders, unmarried adult children of green card holders, married adult children of U.S. citizens, and siblings of U.S. citizens.

Green Cared Issued 2016

The overall number of green cards available for these other categories of family members has a cap calculated annually, between 226,000 and 480,000. Green cards available for each type of family member are further limited and are subject to per-country caps. The number of applicants for the family-sponsored categories consistently exceeds the limits. There were 3,947,857 people on the family-sponsored visa waitlist as of November 1, 2017. Because there are limits on the number of green cards immigrants from any one country can receive, the expected wait time varies. Immigrants from countries that tend to have high immigration levels, like China, Mexico, India, and the Philippines, have long wait times to obtain a green card. For example, the number of green cards available in a given year for adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens is 23,400. The current wait time for a green card for applicants in this category from Mexico exceeds 20 years, compared to around seven years for applicants from countries with low rates of immigration.

Issue Tag: Judiciary