With headlines dominated right now by immigration negotiations between Congress and the White House, the only sure thing is uncertainty: Anyone who tries to predict the likelihood and scope of a new immigration deal is just guessing. This is as true now as it was five years ago, when I was an Obama White House staffer in the room where comprehensive immigration reform was being negotiated. A sweeping bipartisan deal was struck in the Senate, only to hit a brick wall in the House of Representatives.
This time there may be no immigration deal again, or there may be a narrow deal that focuses exclusively on border security and relief for Dreamers, leaving everything else untouched. But with the White House and its congressional allies escalating their demands for major changes to legal immigration, it’s important to prepare for the possibility that significant changes to the green card sponsorship system will actually be enacted this year, with a disproportionate effect on Asian American communities.
First, a reality check: While the White House has endorsed the idea of cutting the number of family-sponsored green cards in half, and making it impossible to sponsor any family member beyond a spouse or minor child, such drastic changes are almost certainly non-starters. While any negotiation involves posturing on both sides, it’s possible to get a sense of what’s actually on the table by looking at the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform deal from five years ago. In that bill, the annual number of available green cards didn’t change; they just got shifted around. The controversial “diversity visas” and some extended-family visas were reallocated to other priorities.
This time around, the scope of negotiations is even narrower, so we probably won’t see cuts to overall immigration levels, or a wholesale transformation to a “merit-based” immigration system. That said, any new deal will include some winners and losers.
Let’s go through the current categories of family-based immigration one by one, from most to least vulnerable…
If you’re a U.S. permanent resident (green card holder), you can currently sponsor a spouse or an unmarried child for a green card of their own. But somewhat under the radar, Senate dealmakers Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) already told the White House they’re willing to eliminate the ability of permanent residents to sponsor their children aged 21 and older, and to apply those 26,266 annual green cards to the waiting list for spouses and minor children instead. If this would put your own plans at risk, you should take action to sponsor your adult children right away.
If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can currently sponsor your siblings for a green card. But this too could be vulnerable. Sibling green cards were largely traded away in the 2013 comprehensive immigration deal, so there’s reason to believe they will be a bargaining chip again. Eligible citizens should look into getting their sibling sponsorship paperwork filed without delay.
If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can currently sponsor your adult children for a green card. But here again, the 2013 compromise would have largely eliminated green cards for married sons or daughters of U.S. citizens who are over 31 years of age—and something like this could happen again.
If you’re a U.S. citizen, you can currently sponsor your spouse, minor children, and parents for a green card. While not even the most hard-line immigration restrictionists have suggested curbing sponsorship of spouses and minor children, sponsorship of parents does tend to get lumped into calls to end so-called “chain migration.” I believe that such a dramatic change to the status quo is unlikely bordering on impossible. That said, prognosticators like me have been wrong before, and there’s generally no harm in filing the paperwork right now.
If you’ve been thinking of sponsoring a relative in one of these vulnerable categories, it’s probably a good idea to get started right away. The first step in each case is filing a family sponsorship petition (“Form I-130”), which secures your place in line. Yes, there are lengthy green card backlogs, but those backlogs may be addressed some day, while a closed door may never reopen.
As a White House staffer from 2010–2017, Doug Rand worked on efforts by Congress and the executive branch to reform the U.S. immigration system. Today he is President and Co-Founder of Boundless, a technology company dedicated to empowering families to navigate the immigration system more confidently, rapidly, and affordably.
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