What to Know About Family-Based Immigration

By  //  April 9, 2022

The Immigration and Nationality Act is a law in the United States that limits the number of family-based immigrant visas that foreign nationals can receive every year. The Department of State allocates these immigrant visas. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services plays a primary role in determining eligibility. 

There are several key eligibility guidelines. For example, you must have a certain income as determined by the Affidavit of Support to sponsor a relative.

Below, we go into what you should know about family-based immigration and sponsoring a relatively to come to the United States. 


All immigrants that are family-based fall into one of two large categories. The first is immediate relative, and the second is family preference. 

Spouses, parents, and children who are unmarried and under the age of 21 U.S. citizens fall into the category of immediate relatives. The number of immigrant visas available each year for immediate relatives is unlimited. Any other relationship is a family preference category. 

There is a limit on the number of available family preference immigrant visas. 

Immigration law caps the number of green cards issued in the family preference category every year. Because of those caps, there’s a long wait and backlog for a lot of the family preference categories. 

U.S. citizens can file a petition for an immigrant visa for their spouse, child, parent, or sibling. U.S. lawful permanent residents can only file a petition for their spouse or unmarried child to immigrate. 

You’ll sometimes hear the family-based immigration system referred to as chain migration. 

Family preference relatives are included in one of the following categories:

 First Preference or FI is the unmarried children of a U.S. citizen

Second Preference or F2A is the category including spouses and unmarried children of a lawful permanent resident

Second Preference F2B applies to unmarried children of a lawful permanent resident

Third Preference, also known as F3, is for married children of a U.S. citizen

Fourth Preference or F4 is a category for the brothers and sisters of a U.S. citizen 

Application Process for a Green Card

A family-based immigration process usually starts with the petitioner requesting the United States government to allow their family member to immigrate. 

Form I-130 needs to be filed, which is the Petition for Alien Relative. You have to submit it with other needed documentation such as a birth certificate, proof of U.S. citizenship, or a marriage certificate. The documents are also used to show a family relationship between the sponsor and their beneficiary. 

The USCIS must approve the petition, and this is where you have to simply wait. 

If you’re petitioning on behalf of your immediate relative, you can expect the application to be processed faster. 

Once you’ve filed the petition, the USCIS lets you know the status of the application, and with approval, it’s forwarded to the National Visa Center. A preference relative has to wait until there’s a visa that becomes available. 

After the approval of your petition, immigrants will apply for their green card, which requires a lot of paperwork. Along with the documentation, your relative goes through a medical exam and interviews to apply for a green card, which is known as consular processing. 

How Long Will Your Relative Wait?

For immediate relatives, the waiting time for a green card is usually several months. This is just the time required for USCIS and the State Department to go through the processing of the applications. 

On the other hand, Preference relatives may have to wait several years before applying for a visa or green card. 

Only a certain number of visas in preference categories can go to a single country in one year. So, if a very high number of people submit family petitions for relatives from countries like India, China, Mexico, or the Philippines, wait times can be even longer. 

There’s no way to say for sure how long a wait will be because of a combination of annual limits on immigrant visas and the inability to predict how many people will submit a petition each year. 

We can look at how long people currently near the front of the line have been waiting. 

For an adult, unmarried children of U.S. citizens in the first preference category, the average wait is six years. The wait is 23 years on average for Mexican citizens and nine years for Philippines citizens. 

Second preference groups include spouses or children of permanent residents. In the past, it’s been anywhere from two to 22 years, depending on someone’s country of origin. For category 2B, which is for unmarried children over the age of 21, the average wait is six years. For citizens of Mexico, it’s 22 years, and ten years for citizens of the Philippines.

Married children of U.S. citizens are third preference, and the average wait time is 13 years. Brothers and sisters are fourth preference, and the average wait is 14 years. 

Financial Sponsorship

Under United States law, everyone who immigrates based on a family petition is required to have a financial sponsor. When you file form I-130, you agree to be a financial sponsor. You also have to file an affidavit of support when it’s time for your relative to actually immigrate. 

If you don’t meet the financial requirements at the time, you still file Form I-864, which is the Affidavit of Support. You accept responsibility, but you also have to find other people who meet the requirements and will file affidavits of support. 

The affidavit is meant as a way to make sure that new immigrants to the U.S. aren’t going to have to rely on support programs like Medicaid, Food Stamps, or Supplemental Security Income. If you file an affidavit of support and your relative becomes a permanent resident and then goes on public benefits, the agency giving those benefits to them may require you to repay the funds. 

A sponsor is required if a family member is coming to work for one of their relatives or a company where a relative owns 5% or more of the company. 

According to the law, as a sponsor, you have to prove an income level that’s at or above 125% of the federal poverty level. If you’re active-duty military, the requirement is 100% of the poverty level if you’re supporting a spouse or child. 

If your income doesn’t meet the required guidelines, you may be able to have your assets considered. Assets can include stocks, bonds, property, or funds you have in your checking or savings account. 

The income of other household members might be eligible to be added to your income level, but that person has to sign Form I-864A, which is the Affidavit of Support Contract Between Sponsor and Household Member. That means the member of your household signing the form is making their own assets and income available to support the relative who’s attempting to get permanent residence in the United States. 

If you still, at that point, can’t meet the financial requirements, someone else is going to have to become a financial sponsor along with you. The joint sponsor has to meet any requirements separately, including income requirements. 

The household size of a sponsor plays a role in the income you have to make to sponsor a relative. 

For example, if you have a household of two as a sponsor, 125% of the poverty guideline puts you at $22,887, while 100% is $18,310. 


Over the past three decades, there has been steady growth in backlogs for family-based immigrants. There are millions of families who have been separated for decades as a result. 

The State Department reports there are almost four million people who are currently in backlogs abroad, not including other family members in the U.S. with another immigration status who have applied to adjust their status to a green cold holder. 

The State Department publishes monthly something called the Visa Bulletin. The Visa Bulletin includes priority dates. These are dates when petitions were first filed that the government is currently processing in each preference category. 

Checking the Visa Bulletin can give you an idea of how long some applicants have been waiting to receive a green card and what timeline you might be able to expect in your situation. 

The COVID-19 situation increased the backlog. There were full and partial closures of embassies and consulates abroad, the staffing was limited, and there were shutdowns. These factors led to increased processing times, and the limits of available green cards weren’t processed, worsening backlogs. 

In Fiscal Year 2021, only 65,452 family preference green cards were issued out of the 226,000 available. 

The big takeaway here is that family immigration isn’t necessarily easy, although the wait time is shorter for some types of relatives than for others. There’s a lot to navigate regarding paperwork, requirements, and guidelines. There are also financial considerations. 

It might help to work with an immigration attorney to make sure that you get things right the first time so that your relative doesn’t have to wait longer than necessary.