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Reuniting Families

by Ajit Natarajan for UniteFamilies

The Basic Issue

The United States is a country built on immigration, but its laws are pulling immigrant families apart.  In particular, families of Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs — also known as green card holders).

The problem stems from an annual cap on immigrant visas available to spouses and minor children of LPRs (also known as F2A visas).  This has resulted in a huge backlog, putting family members who apply for immigrant visas on a waiting list.  The current waiting time, coupled with processing delays, is about 5 years.

During this 5 year waiting period, the spouse and minor children of an LPR are ineligible for student or visitor visas.  They must wait outside the U.S. until they are granted permanent resident status.  The LPR cannot live with his/her family outside the U.S., as doing so would risk the loss of Permanent Residency.  In general, the LPR cannot leave the U.S. for more than 6 months at a time.

Essentially, families are forced to stay apart for unreasonably long periods while they wait for immigration processing.

What About Other Categories?

In contrast, every other category — students, workers, citizens — can sponsor their families to live in the U.S. with them without excessive delays.

Applicants for other categories of immigrant visas, for example, siblings of U.S. citizens, face similar backlogs and restrictions.  None, however, violate what we believe to be a basic tenet — the family is an integral unit that must be kept together.

Ripping husbands, wives and children apart from each other should not be the effect of an Immigration System.

How Families Are Affected

Family separation is a serious issue.  It causes signficant emotional turmoil and can have long-lasting and devastating effects.

Lawful Permanent Residents are denied playing an active role in raising their own children.  For no fault of their own, children and parents miss priceless moments that are witnessed in normal family environments every day.  Even worse, for those families who cannot afford frequent travel, a child grows up not knowing one of his/her parents.  Five years is an incredibly long time during childhood. 

LPRs must live separated from their husband or wife, being forced into a predicament that is widely recognized as unpleasant and challenging — a long-distance relationship.  This can cause breakups of what would otherwise be normal happy families.

Single LPRs are also affected.  Those who are ready to marry and start a family often have difficulty in finding an acceptable life partner.  Their immigrant status, in essence, prevents them from marrying a loved one from their own country and living in the U.S.  The senseless part is that if they had married prior to becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident, they would have avoided family separation altogether. 

The American Dream

With the persistent ill effects of family separation, LPRs often land into the dilemma of choosing between country and family.  Years of hardwork pursuing the "American Dream" turn into a lost effort. 

The US is Also Negatively Affected

There are significant adverse economic impacts to the U.S. when Lawful Permanent Residents are separated from their families.

Immigrants with immediate families abroad often remit part of their earnings to them.  Every year, an estimated 4.2 billion U.S. dollars is sent out of the country by LPRs who are supporting their spouses and families.[1]   Family unification would result in this money remaining in the U.S.,  as families of LPRs that come to the country add to the consumer base.  Money that would be sent abroad to support them is now spent in the U.S. 

Though it can't be generalized, over time, entrepreneurial spirit in immigrants has resulted in a lot of success stories.[2]  Immigrants have a proven track record of creating jobs.  An LPR forced to choose between country and family may choose to leave the U.S.  When an LPR leaves the country, they take their jobs with them.  Jobs that may have been created in the U.S. as a result of the LPR's entrepreneurship would be moved elsewhere.  This is demonstrated by a case study on the impact of reverse brain drain on the Taiwanese economy.

In general, LPRs contribute significantly to the success of the U.S. economy, as, on average, immigrants contribute $80K more in taxes over their lifetime than they receive in benefits.[3] 

Taking aside moral aspects of this issue, the U.S. has still much to gain by uniting families of LPRs.

Family Immigration Details

The National Immigration Forum has an excellent analysis of family preference categories and backlogs.

There are two types of immigration: family based and employment based.  U.S. citizens (USCs) and Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) sponsoring family members for immigrant visas falls under the category of family immigration.

Spouses and children of non-immigrants who adjust to permanent residence are not counted against any of the family immigrant categories.

Family Immigration Categories:

There are several categories of family immigration:

  • USCs sponsoring immediate relatives (spouses, minor children, parents).

  • Other categories ("preference categories"):
    1. USCs sponsoring their adult unmarried children.
    2. LPRs sponsoring their immediate families:
      1. Spouse and minor children.
      2. Adult unmarried children.
    3. USCs sponsoring their married children.
    4. USCs sponsoring their brothers and sisters.

Numerical Limits:

Immediate relatives of USCs are not subject to annual numerical limits.  All other categories (called preference categories, numbered 1-4 above) have annual numerical limits imposed by Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act, 1990 (Section 203).

Every fiscal year[4], each preference category has a minimum annual allocation of visas.  If, during a given fiscal year, more immigrant visas are available than the minimum guaranteed, the excess is allocated in the order shown above.  If, during a fiscal year, the number of visas used in a given category falls below the minimum, the unused visas are allocated to the other categories in preference order.

The minimum guaranteed allocation is as follows:

Preference Category                   Visas available

   Adult unmarried children of USC       23,400
   Immediate family of LPR              114,200
   Married children of USC               23,400
   Siblings of USC                       65,000

   Total:                               226,000

480,000 family immigrant visas are available every fiscal year.  Unused employment based immigrant visas from the previous fiscal year (if any) are added to this.  Visas used for immediate relatives of USCs and visas issued to children of LPRs born during temporary visits abroad are subtracted from this.  If the total falls below 226,000, the minimum guarantees apply.  If the total exceeds 226,000 the excess is allocated in order of preference.

Of the visas allocated to immediate family of LPRs, 77% are reserved for spouses and minor children of LPRs (category 2A), with the remaining allocated for adult unmarried children (category 2B).

If, during a given fiscal year, the number of applicants under the spouse/minor children of LPRs (category 2A) exceeds 226,000, enough new immigrant visas are automatically created to cover the excess.

At most one quarter of the visas available per fiscal year can be used in each of the first three quarters of the fiscal year.

Per Country Limits:

At most 7% of immigrant visas available can be issued to citizens of a given country.  The exception is that 75% of the visas available for category 2A are not subject to per country limits.

In Practice:

During the last several years, the number of immigrant visas issued to immediate relatives of USCs has been substantial.  Consequently, only the minimum guaranteed number of preference category visas (226,000) has been available.

The number of applicants in each preference category has far exceeded the number of visas available. Significant backlogs have resulted.  The State Department visa bulletin lists the backlogs in various categories.  The 2A category is backlogged 8 years for Mexico and 4-5 years for other countries.

The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have renewed the emphasis on security checks. During fiscal year 2002, the USCIS processed fewer preference category 2 applications (84,860) than the number of visas available (114,200).

This was due to the extensive background check that each applicant was subjected to.  By the time the checks were completed, the fiscal year ended and unused visas were lost.  The USCIS expects this situation to continue.


Lawful Permanent Residents torn from their families for years is not a new problem.  A mechanism to unite families of LPRs was created by the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act of 2000 (the LIFE Act).

It is called the V visa.  Unfortunately, it is effectively no longer available. 

We believe the best solution is to renew the V visa.

What Is the V Visa?

The V visa allows the spouse and minor children of an LPR to live in the U.S. while they await approval of their family immigration petitions.  The visa allows the spouse to work while in the U.S. and travel out of the U.S. as needed.  It is valid until the immigrant petition is either approved or rejected.

The V visa is similar to K visas available to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens awaiting approval of their immigrant visa petitions.

Why Is It No Longer Available?

The LIFE Act included the following restrictions on the availability of the V visa:

  1. The immigrant visa petitions (I-130) must have been filed before December 22, 2000.  This was the date of enactment of the LIFE Act. 
  2. The petition must have been pending for at least three years.

In essence, the V visa was created to remedy a temporary problem in the year 2000 — excessive family separation of LPRs due to immigration backlogs.  Unfortunately, it was not a temporary problem.  Family separation of LPRs is still here and even more lengthy in the year of 2004.

We believe the V visa should be renewed without the provisions above.  H.R. 1823 extends the V visa to January 1, 2011, and reduces eligibility pending period to 6 months.  We believe that this is the right solution and we urge Congress to enact it.

Why Is the V Visa the Best Alternative?

  • No additional immigrant visas are needed.
  • No security or background checks are bypassed.  National security is not compromised.
  • V visa beneficiaries still wait their turn to get their immigrant visas.  They are not "jumping the queue".
  • The V visa was enacted once.  It is far more likely for a provision to be renewed than for a new provision to be enacted.  Congress has already understood the problem by creating the V visa.  All we need to do is convince Congress that this problem was not a one time issue that needed a stopgap fix.
  • It is unrelated to amnesty.

How do We Get the V Visa Renewed?

A lot of voices. 

Fortunately, the cause is based on something that has little controversy — family unity — but changing any legislation is not a small matter, or a one person job.  We need help from you. 

Alternate Solutions

Several alternative solutions have been proposed to achieve family unity.  Bills have been introduced in previous sessions of Congress for most of these solutions.  However, we believe that none of these alternatives are as attractive as renewing the V visa:

  • Remove numerical limits on immigrant visas for spouses and minor children of LPRs.  Title II of Senator Hagel's (R-NE) S. 1919 accomplishes this. While this is the true solution to the problem of family unity, additional work would be needed to address the processing delays.

  • Allow spouses and minor children to qualify for student/visitor visas. Congressman Pallone (D-NJ-6) has introduced a bill — H.R. 4448 — for this purpose.  However, not all family members will qualify for student visas.  It is not necessary that the school for which the family member qualifies will be in the same geographical area.  Visitor visas only allow limited duration visits.

  • Reduce residency requirements for naturalization.  This will allow the LPR to naturalize faster thereby qualifying his/her spouse and children as immediate family of a citizen.  Congressman Jim Ryun's (R-KS-2) bill &mdash H.R. 4168 — and its Senate companion — Senator Alexander's (R-TN) S. 1815 — reduce the residency requirement to four years for those fluent in English.

  • Do not count immigrant visas issued to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens against the quota available to preference categories.  This has been proposed in Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter's (R-PA) bill — Senate Amendment 3192 to S. 2454 (Chairman's Mark).  It is also contained in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's (R-TN) bill — S. 2454.  Under current law, immigrant visas issued to spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens are subtracted from the 480,000 immigrant visas available to family preference categories each fiscal year.  Since there is considerable demand for immigrant visas for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, eliminating this reduction would double the number of immigrant visas available to preference categories.  Unfortunately, this will not reduce wait times significantly because the number of permanent residents would dramatically increase if this bill were enacted due to the creation of the dual intent H2C visa (gold card), the agricultural worker visa (blue card), and the advanced degree F4 visa.  This is further exacerbated by the recently enacted REAL ID Act which eliminates the annual cap on the number of asylees that can adjust to permanent residence.  It is expected that the demand for family immigration visas will considerably increase as a consequence.

Unlike the V visa, none of these solutions have been enacted before. Many of these solutions increase immigrant benefits beyond family unity — something that may not be attractive to Congress in the prevailing climate. We recommend the renewal of the V visa as the preferred solution to this problem. The V visa addresses the problem of family unity — nothing more, nothing less.

Other Countries

Here's a quick look at what other industrialized nations do:

  • Canada requires three years of residency in the four years prior to the application for citizenship.  Time spent in non-immigrant status can be counted towards meeting the residency requirement.
  • The United Kingdom has a five year residency requirement.  However, all the time spent in non-immigrant status can be counted at 100%.
  • Australia has a two year residency requirement.

Pending Legislation

H.R. 1823 was introduced on April 26, 2005, by Congressman Andrews. Do urge your Congressperson and Senators to cosponsor this bill to renew the V visa.

Here is the text of the bill as introduced in the House.

H.R. 1823 IH, 109th Congress, 1st Session

To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to extend the provisions governing nonimmigrant status for spouses and children of permanent resident aliens awaiting the availability of an immigrant visa, and for other purposes.


April 26, 2005
Mr. ANDREWS (for himself and Ms. JACKSON-LEE of Texas) introduced the following bill; which was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.


To amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to extend the provisions governing nonimmigrant status for spouses and children of permanent resident aliens awaiting the availability of an immigrant visa, and for other purposes.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,

Section 1. Nonimmigrant Status for Spouses and Children of Permanent Residents Awaiting the Availability of an Immigrant Visa.

Section 101(a)(15)(V) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(15)(V)) is amended—

  1. by striking ‘the date of the enactment of the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act,’ and inserting ‘January 1, 2011,’; and
  2. by striking ‘3 years’ each place such term appears and inserting ‘6 months’.


1 This is based on a conservative estimate of all LPRs in the U.S. who are separated from their immediate families remitting on average $500 per month.

2 Migration Policy Institute whitepaper: Immigrant Entrepreneurs.

3 Section 3, H.R. 440, 108th Congress, finding of the National Academy of Sciences.

4 The U.S. Government's fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30.

About The Author

Ajit Natarajan is a resident of the Silicon Valley where he works as a software architect for a Fortune 500 company. He holds a Masters Degree from the University of Wisconsin and a Bachelors from the Indian Institute of Technology. He founded, a volunteer-run, not for profit organization, in 2002 because he felt that the lengthy separation faced by law abiding, tax paying future citizens of the U.S. from their spouses and minor children was simply un-American. He felt that they needed a support and advocacy group to raise awareness and get the problem fixed. He is himself a permanent resident of the U.S. and is unable to even contemplate marrying someone outside the country. The group has now grown to over 650 members nationwide and international with more people joining daily. They have collected over 1300 signatures on their onlin petition. They have met several lawmakers and their staff and have appeared in articles in several newspapers. They have been instrumental in getting bills introduced in Congress to address the lengthy separation. It is their hope that one of these bills will pass and put an end to their suffering.

For Mother's Day, Sunday, May 14th, UniteFamilies asks people all over the country to simply tie red, white and blue ribbons around trees, to remember the as many as 1.5 million families of LEGAL immigrants who are outlawed or exiled by this cruel law. For more info, see this flyer.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.