Background: Family-Based Immigration

This is a background article to inform readers on one of the issues being considered for the second round of discussions, to be held in early 2013. Comments are welcome.

One of the important goals of our immigration system is to unite families. Often, one family member comes to the US for education or employment, followed by his or her family. Creating strong families is great for our country because we benefit from the social and cultural connections that these families bring. But in our current immigration system, families coming to the US compete with workers for spaces in our quota-based immigration system.


According to a report by the University of Denver, in 2007, 15% of the 1.1 million immigrants to US came for employment reasons, while 65% came for family. These numbers indicate that a small minority of immigrants to our country come for jobs, and that family unification is the main motivation for immigration. In addition, the majority of the 15% of visas issued for employment were for family members of other work visa holders, further illustrating that family is a key issue for immigrants.


The importance of family reunification in immigration to the United States began under the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which allotted just less than three-quarters of new visas to the purpose of reuniting family members. A 2006 NPR report specifies the significance of the 1965 law. In the piece, the Asian American Justice Center’s Karen Narasaki has found that extended families in the Asian community are very close-knit, and they often function as a single unit. In addition, Hannah Ndubuisi, an immigrant from Nigeria, has found that her relatives in Nigeria all want to come to the United States. Ms. Ndubuisi was sponsored by her son, Samuel, who is a US citizen. Currently, citizens and legal permanent residents of the US can sponsor their immediate relatives to gain a visa for immigration. However, the immigration system specifically designed for family reunification is flooded for applicants, meaning that relatives must wait years before they can be united.

Advantages of Change

Our current system does not emphasize employment. Rather than emphasizing family-based immigration, we should encourage immigration for employment and view family unification as an end of the path of employment-based immigration.

Our system should make it possible for immigrants coming for family unification to be counted separately from those coming for employment. This reduces the competition between families and those looking for work. By taking this step, we can put our country on the path to economic prosperity. Immigrants drive our nation’s competitiveness on a global scale, so limiting employment immigration by creating a single immigrant pool hurts us by limiting our economy’s access to the skills and values that immigrants bring.

Disadvantages of Change

However, our current system has benefits, too. By limiting the total number of immigrants to our country, we ensure that Americans can find work. This is especially important in tough economic times. As it is, trained workers have a hard time finding work that can support them and their families. And if we create an immigration system that is too open, we could make it even harder to find a well-paying job that takes advantage of the skills of individual workers. In other words, having quotas and restrictions on who can enter our country to find work, we create an environment that helps out the people already here. With millions of people unemployed or underemployed, we need to look to a solution that creates long-term jobs and fosters economic sustainability.

Millions of immigrants to our country came specifically for their families, and it is therefore important that we take this into consideration when creating new policy. Immigrants contribute significantly to our economy, our government, and our lives. We need to ensure that our immigration system is robust yet sensitive to the needs of the people across the globe who have the dream of coming to the United States in the hope of creating better lives for themselves.

Leave a Reply