Reuniting Families: The Importance & Challenges of Family Immigration

By Rebecca Ma and Naeema Hasan

Understanding Family Immigration

Family immigration, a pathway established by Congress, allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents to bring certain family members who are abroad to this country or to enable those family members who are already in the U.S. to adjust their status here. It is an acknowledgment of the vital role families play in the lives and care of Americans and of our communities. About two-thirds of all immigrants come through this family-based system. This system, along with the waves of Asian refugees who would later sponsor relatives, resulted in the tremendous growth of the Asian American communities in the U.S. today.

The Growing Challenges

The principle of family unity has been a hallmark of U.S. immigration since 1965, but the family immigration system today is overburdened and outdated. The number of family-based green cards available has not kept up with the number of families in need of reunification, creating a massive backlog. Of the 4 million aspiring Americans waiting years and decades for family-based visas, nearly 40 percent are from Asia.

Why is there a backlog? A multitude of reasons:

Limited number of green cards for relatives under “family preference” categories Administrative delays and technical flaws Insufficient funding

Country-based quotas that push people from countries with high immigration levels further back into the queue This backlog is not just numbers it is about real people and real families. Imagine the frustration of waiting for years, even decades, to reunite with your loved ones who are stuck abroad. Or the constant state of limbo faced by immigrant relatives in the U.S. who need to adjust status or else risk losing the authorization to stay here with their families. Some, despite having deep roots in the country, cannot even apply for a green card due to their lack of status.

The Solution: The Reuniting Families Act

This past fall, Representative Judy Chu reintroduced a promising solution: the Reuniting Families Act (H.R. 5560). It is not just a bill but a vision that seeks to:

End the backlog: The Reuniting Families Act would double the number of family-preference visas available, make sure all available visas are used every year, and ensure no one with an approved visa application waits beyond ten years to reunite with family.

Ensure more families can be together: The Reuniting Families Act prohibits the deportation of people in the application process, protects family members without status from being punished by re-entry bars that prevent them from adjusting status, and prioritizes reunification for refugee families.

Address disparities and make the system fairer: The Reuniting Family Act extends protections for LGBTQ+ families, stepchildren, adoptees, children born through assisted reproductive technology, widowed people and others who lose a sponsoring relative.

Promote diversity: The Reuniting Families Act expands the diversity visa program and provides redress for diversity visa winners blocked by the Muslim and African bans and Covid-19 closures.

The Reuniting Families Act and provisions of the bill have been incorporated into other legislation over the years, including most recently in a version of the Build Back Better Act, the U.S. Citizenship Act, and the Dignity Act.