Family Reunification Policy in the U.S. – A Critical Review

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Clare Fenwick and Ruben Faller

Maastricht University / UNU-MERIT

Contemporary migration patterns and immigration to the U.S. is largely shaped by family reunification as it is the most important channel for permanent legal migration to the country.

In the time period 2011-2013, family reunification accounted for two-thirds of all legal migration to the US. There has been a long history of regulating family reunification and incorporating it within immigration policy. Ever since the introduction of the 1921 Emergency Quota law, the U.S. maintains a system that Capturaspecifies quotas for specific family members seeking to join U.S. citizens. Today’s system is still largely characterised by the quota system and contains key features of the 1952 and 1965 reformations of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Essentially the INA specifies quotas for five family-sponsored eligibility categories and imposes restrictions on the total number of family-sponsored admissions from each country, details of which are summarized in Table 1.

Strengths & Weaknesses

The recently published Migrant Integration Policy Index 2015 assigns the U.S. a total score of 66 in the policy area of family unification, thereby ranking the U.S.’s policy framework 14 out of 38 countries. This indicates that the U.S provides a ‘slightly favourable’ environment for families looking to settle and become participants of U.S. society.

One of the key strengths of the U.S. system is that it provides an effective route for U.S. citizens to unite with their families abroad. There is no quota limiting the total number of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who want to reunify with their families in the U.S. As a result, the procedures are relatively straightforward and swift. There are few delays or backlogs in the processing of applications but families are usually able to reunite and acquire their visas within one year after they have filed their petition with the relevant authorities. Therefore, it can be argued that the U.S. system is relatively generous for U.S. citizens. However, this does not necessarily hold true for non U.S. citizens, such as temporary migrants and lawful permanent residents (LPRs) residing within the U.S.

Another strength is the fact that certain family members are eligible to apply for autonomous residence permits, which are not linked to the residency of their sponsor in cases of divorce or death. This arguably provides for a higher degree of flexibility and security for family members whose residency in the U.S. is ultimately tied to their sponsor, which is often a weakness within the family reunification policies of other countries. Essentially, the general conditions and principles underlying family reunification in the U.S. are comparably straightforward.

However, a controversial point is that sponsors have to possess a substantial amount of income or assets. While this provides for the clear advantage of ensuring that the reunification of certain family members does not burden the welfare system, it puts poorer households in a disadvantageous position, making it considerably harder for individuals with less income and assets to reunite with family members abroad.

Despite its key strengths, the U.S. system has some serious drawbacks that continue to hamper the effective processing of certain claims to family reunification. The quotas often lead to delays and seriously limit American residents from making effective use of their right to family reunification. Today the procedures for family reunification are characterised by enormous backlogs, because the demand for family reunification far exceeds the supply provided by the quotas set. Some families must wait for up to 20 years to be granted the opportunity to reunite with immediate relatives.

Furthermore, the U.S.’s policy is inflexible as it does not provide for mechanisms to adjust the quotas enough to effectively deal with increasing backlogs, delays and substantial changes in global migration patterns. An outcome of these severe delays was highlighted in a recent study by Katharine Donato, which highlights the plight of unaccompanied minors who to enter the U.S. illegally and often dangerously. She found that virtually all of those that tried to cross the U.S. Mexican border without authorisation had family currently residing in the U.S (Donato, 2015).


  1. Greater Flexibility

The U.S.’s system is characterised by enormous backlogs and long waiting times, which can in some cases exceed 20 years, and they prevent eligible persons and many American families from making use of the rights they possess to family reunification.  This can be attributed to the quota system, which is highly inflexible in responding to fluctuating numbers of claims to family reunification. This weakness could be overcome by allowing for the system to be more flexible; for example, through introducing specific provisions that can alter the caps on the quotas and allow for more places to be made available in case of increasing numbers of applications. Additionally, the visa rollover system could be extended to include unused green cards from all parts of the immigration process.

  1. More Equity

Another shortcoming of the U.S system is the inherently different treatment of full U.S. citizens, LPRs and temporary residents. Many temporary residents do not have the right to family renunciation or cannot petition for their families in the U.S., even if they have sufficient resources to cover all related expenses. Given the right to family life, the U.S. system should also enable short-term residents to be able to easily reunite with their close family members under similar conditions of U.S. citizens and LPRs.

  1. Improved Access

The current U.S. system has disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable families. As a result, improving access to, and lowering the eligibility criteria for family reunification, which clearly favour more well off households, is important. To sponsor family members to come to the U.S., the sponsor has to possess income or assets, which amount to 125% of the poverty line as well as very high fees. These financial obligations could potentially put a very high burden on certain demographics and hinder them from taking up their right to family reunion. Possible solutions include exemptions or reductions in fees for certain vulnerable groups. This holds especially true for those that have been admitted on humanitarian grounds.


Donato, K. (2015). Family reunification drives child migration from Latin America, Vanderbilt University, Retrieved June 7 2015 from:

Migrant Integration Policy Index. (2015). USA | MIPEX 2015. Retrieved 25 May 2015, from