Entering the US: Visas, Caps and Chain Migration

Written by Michelle Manivel

The current “crisis” at the border that President Trump has generated so much attention for is a crisis indeed, but for different reasons than what the Administration would have you believe.  Families are being intentionally separated, people are systematically denied asylum, and the US is making it more restrictive than ever to become a citizen. The “makeshift” facilities and “breaking points” that the immigration systems have reached are in response to an ill-equipped government not willing to plan for the increased numbers of asylum seekers coupled with the changing demographics of those crossing (now, more families than individuals). While Trump is claiming that there are more people entering without authorization than ever before, this actually is not true: there were twice as many in the 1990s and 2000s. In this article, we’ll review some data on the numbers of people entering the US with visas, key terminology, and what you can do to help.

How many people can lawfully enter the US?

The short answer: it depends what type of visa you are eligible to use for entry. Established in 1990, family sponsorship can be given to 480,000 people every year, with at least 226,000 going to family preference categories, which include:

  1. Spouse or unmarried son or daughter of a US citizen

  2. Spouse or children under 18, or unmarried children over 21 years old of legal permanent residents

  3. Married children of US citizens and their spouses and children under 18

  4. Siblings of US citizens and their spouses and children under 18

Besides family-based visas, employers are able to sponsor permanent residency. Keep in mind, employment-based visas are held by employers; there is no path for a foreign laborer to come to the US and request a visa to work. The request begins in the US. For a green card in this pathway, there are three different categories:

  1. EB-1: Extraordinary ability in science, arts, education, business, athletics; outstanding professor or researcher; or multinational manager and executives (these people are considered “priority workers”)

  2. EB-1: Professionals with advanced degrees or have exceptional ability

  3. EB-3: Skilled workers and other professionals

Other visas include the Diversity Visa, also known as the ‘Lottery’; and humanitarian relief, which includes refugees and asylum seekers:

  • Asylum visas for fiscal year 2019 have been capped at 30,000 - that has been decided by the president.  

  • Diversity Visas for 2019 is capped at 50,000 - a reduction from the 55,000 that had been allowed up until 2000, when congress called for a “temporary reduction”.  However, this temporary period has no limit and can be reversed at any time.

What is the difference between an immigrant, a refugee and an asylum seeker?

Language used to talk about people who move varies and carries very significant meaning. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Immigrant: Someone who chooses to resettle in another country

  • Undocumented Immigrant: An immigrant without legal protected status

  • Asylum Seeker: Person who files an application for asylum in a country other than their country of nationality. They are an asylum-seekers until their application is decided. If they are accepted they are then an asylee.

  • Refugee: One of six legal immigrant categories – refers to someone who is unable to remain in their country of origin due to persecution or fear of persecution. Refugees apply for refugee status outside of the US and are granted entry based on refugee admittance categories set by the President and Congress.

  • Illegal Alien: A non-US citizen who has entered the country illegally – this language is dehumanizing and offensive but is still used in legal documents.

What is the deal with this whole “Chain Migration” thing?

Each migrant to the US sponsors on average 3.5 relatives, which has been coined as “chain migration”. Back in 1990, Congress passed a law that not more than 480,000 extended family members (also including immediate family members) would be allowed citizenship in the US.  This number is still used today, almost 30 years later with a very different political climate and multiple new global realities.

So, how long does it take to get into the US if you apply?

The short answer: it depends where you are from, what language you speak, how much money you have, who you know, and when you apply.  As of March 2018, Mexican unmarried or married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens have been waiting since 1997. Check out this graphic, which helps explain these differences:

Copy of Library Immigration 101- may 2018.png

**Remember, F-1 visas are unmarried Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens

How does this align with IFCLA’s mission?

IFCLA is committed to honoring and promoting diversity in the US, and ensuring the dignity of all people is honored regardless of how they move or arrive to this country. We must reevaluate the allocated visas, as many of the laws governing admissions rely on outdated population and regional demographic data. We firmly believe that all people have the right to live a dignified life in their country of origin, and when that right is denied them, we believe all people have a right to migrate, regardless of their movement is in the pursuit of protection, to escape persecution, or to live a healthy and productive life. We could approach increasing global migrations with a greater sense of empathy for the families who have often times, gone through very difficult journeys in pursuit of the same values we ourselves espouse. We need to work to help these communities acculturate rather than assimilate.    


  • Call your member of congress and demand that they revisit the numbers and eligibility process to be allowed into the US.

  • Educate yourself and your community on terminology that relates to why and how people migrate.

  • Attend IFCLA’s Immigration 101 and 201 classes to learn more. Check here for upcoming opportunities or email the office if you’d like to host a 101 or 201 at your congregation/organization.

**Image is copyright of Melanie Cervantes and is available online here.