The United States hit a new record of about 8.3 million immigrants at various stages in its family-sponsored permanent residence process in 2022—an increase of nearly 1 million since 2019. The staggering number of pending cases is primarily the result of outdated caps on green cards, but processing delays are also affecting a substantial number of applicants.
The U.S. immigration system’s current caps came into effect in fiscal year 1992. Figure 1 breaks down the family‐based backlog into its two main categories: immediate relatives (“uncapped”) and family preference immigrants (“capped”) from 1992 to 2022. Immediate relatives—spouses, minor children, and parents of adult U.S. citizens—have no direct cap (though their admissions reduce the cap for the family preference (or capped) immigrants from 480,000 to 226,000). The immediate relative backlog has increased from about 73,000 in 1992 to over 1 million in 2022.
Family preference immigrants are spouses and children of legal permanent residents, adult children of U.S. citizens, and siblings of adult U.S. citizens, as well as any spouses and minor children of those relatives. Immigrants who need a cap number available to apply for a green card made up about 86 percent of the family‐based backlog in 2022. From 1992 to 2022, the number of capped family‐sponsored immigrants stuck in the backlog increased from about 3.3 million to about 7.1 million. The cap is set at 226,000 annually.
These estimates differ significantly from the most commonly referenced source for information on the family‐sponsored green card backlog: the State Department’s annual immigrant visa waiting list report. The numbers from that report are shown in orange (Petition Approved‐Wait Listed (Abroad)), but that report does not include several groups of applicants. It excludes the “immediate relative” or uncapped categories, anyone waiting to apply inside the United States, and—most importantly—anyone whose petition is yet to be adjudicated. As Figure 2 shows, 3.6 million had a sponsor’s petition pending. This massive backlog in pending petitions is largely because of the government’s correct view that it shouldn’t waste resources adjudicating applications that will not result in a green card being issued thanks to the cap.
The overall cap is set at 226,000, but it is divided into 5 categories based on the immigrant’s marital status and relationship to the U.S. sponsor:
F‑1—Married adult children of U.S. citizens: 23,400
F‑2A—Spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents: ~87,900
F‑2B—Unmarried adult children of legal permanent residents: ~26,300
F‑3—Unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens: 23,400
F‑4—Siblings of U.S. citizens: 65,000
In addition, immigrants from each country have a separate limit. No single birthplace can receive more than 7 percent of the green cards, though 75 percent of the F‑2A category aren’t counted against the cap.
As a result of the country caps and category caps, applicants face wildly different potential wait times: anywhere from 6 years to 233 years (effectively infinite). The odds of a new family‐sponsor surviving to be able to act as a sponsor when a green card is available under the cap is low in many category‐country combinations. Virtually all new sponsors from Mexico in 2022—outside the F‑2A category—will die before their family member receives a green card.
In fact, nearly 40 percent of all new sponsors in 2022 and 58 percent of sponsors in non‐F‐2A categories will die before their relatives get to immigrate. Even if the sponsor survives for eternity, about 1.6 million immigrants currently in the backlog will die before receiving a green card.
Even the shortest wait for F‑2A category—for spouses and minor children of green card holders—is unconscionable. 6 to 10 years to wait to be with your nuclear family? This would be unimaginable in nearly all developed democracies. The United States stands apart in having some of the most restrictive immigration laws among wealthy countries.