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Can immigrants sponsor 'unlimited numbers of distant relatives?'

MIAMI, :  A line forms near the entrance of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Miami, 30 April 2001, as the midnight deadline approaches for illegal immigrants to apply for visas. The Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act allows illegal immigrants nationwide to apply for visas without having to return to their home countries and apply from there.     AFP PHOTO/RHONA WISE (Photo credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP/Getty Images)
FILE: A line forms near the entrance of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Miami, on April 30, 2001.

Southern California Rep. Judy Chu and other lawmakers denounced President Trump's characterization of family-based immigration as "chain migration" during a press conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C., opening another front in the battle over immigration reform.

Trump used the term in his first State of the Union address last week to criticize the current process of legal immigration that allows U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents to sponsor family members' entry into the country.

The president said in his speech that under the current system, "a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives." 

Chu referred to Trump's statement as "absolutely not true," adding that "in reality, it can take decades to reunite just one family member, and there are no visas available for grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins." 

So how accurate is the president's assertion?

First some context and background: The debate over changes to the current system and the Trump administration's efforts to restrict both legal and illegal immigration has been at the center of the tug of war over a spending plan to keep the federal government operating. Another deadline and possible government shutdown looms this week.

Democrats have been pushing for a solution to the status of Dreamers, the young unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children. The Democratic leaders have also resisted calls by Trump and conservatives in Congress to shift the immigration system away from family reunification to one that favors those with certain work skills. 

The president's proposal would radically change the current system of family-based preferences that has been in place since 1965, when Congress replaced a quota system that had favored immigrants from Western and Northern Europe.

Does the system of sponsorship lead to unlimited immigration as the president's comments might suggest? Here are some questions and answers that the issue raises:

Q: How many relatives can a single immigrant sponsor?

While there are no numerical limits for sponsors, U.S. citizens and legal residents can only sponsor limited classes of close relatives. Permanent legal residents can sponsor spouses and unmarried children, including adult unmarried children, those defined as over 21. 

U.S. citizens have more flexibility: they can sponsor both married and unmarried children, including adult children; these adult children may bring their own spouses and children with them. Adult U.S. citizens may also sponsor their parents and their siblings. 

Citizens and legal residents may not petition to enter into the country so-called "distant" relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.

Under Trump's proposed plan, immigrants would only be able to sponsor their spouses and minor children. The switch to a "merit-based" system would favor the highly educated and skilled versus immediate family members.

Q: How easy is it for U.S. citizens and legal residents to sponsor relatives?

Spouses and minor children may be sponsored relatively quickly. The parents of U.S. citizens also have a relatively easier time gaining entry. But other relatives, such as siblings or married sons and daughters, can experience long waits

Filing a Petition for Alien Relative, known as an I-130, and paying a $535 filing fee are only the first steps. Eligible family members wait until there is a visa number available before they can apply to become a lawful permanent resident — a process that can take years. For example, the current wait for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens from the Philippines is almost 24 years.

The current wait for married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens from Mexico is almost 23 years. Unmarried, adult children of legal residents from Mexico whose turn to get a green card is now coming up have been waiting in line nearly 22 years.

According to a U.S. State Department report, as of Nov. 1, there were roughly 3.9 million people on the waiting list for immigrant visas under the family-sponsored preference categories. 

Q: Why does it take longer to sponsor relatives from certain countries?

Each nation gets the same percentage of immigrant visas from a pool of family and employer-based visas that are available each year.

Predictably, the highest demand for family-sponsored visas comes from countries with large immigrant diasporas in the United States, including Mexico, the Philippines, China, and India. This translates into large numbers of people waiting for a relatively small number of visas — and long waits.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there has been an uptick of about 15 percent in I-130 petitions for relatives filed since 2014, which has led to processing backlogs of about three months. 

The delays mean an additional wait for a green card at the tail end of the process once a visa becomes available, according to the agency.

Chu, a Democrat from Los Angeles, introduced a bill that among other things aims to reduce long waits for relatives of U.S. citizens and legal residents who are waiting to enter legally.

Q: How many family-sponsored immigrant petitions are approved  each year?

In fiscal year 2017 that ended Sept. 30, there were 542,370 I-130 petitions approved nationwide. More than 23,000 of these were in the Southern California region.

Petitions approved have been on the decline. There were 696,017 I-130 petitions approved nationwide  in fiscal year 2016, and 752,913 the previous year.

According to the immigration agency, relatives who are being processed are subject to interviews, fingerprinting, background checks and medical exams.