We see their contributions in the family-owned small businesses that form the backbone of our economy and in the struggle to ensure that the next generation will have more and better opportunities than their parents. Extended immigrant families play a starring role in supporting aging parents, raising children or grandchildren, and caring for vulnerable siblings.

Our existing caps on the number of family-based immigrants are antiquated and wholly inadequate. The arbitrary numbers and meaningless distinctions among various categories of relatives fail to take into account the intrinsic value of the family as a unit. Moreover, the existing limits on who can be sponsored and when, as well as the many hurdles that block family reunification, serve more to cripple our communities than protect them. And as we begin to recognize that a more global definition of families includes same sex partnerships, our immigration laws will need to respect all families, equally.

Intending immigrants caught in these artificial backlogs see little or no benefit from family sponsorship unless and until they win the waiting game. Unlike some in the employment context, where an applicant might renew a work visa until a residence is granted, family members generally remain stuck in a twilight zone.

For example, the spouse or minor child of a resident historically has faced a two to six year separation before a visa may become available; for adult children, that line can stretch to over two decades. And those children better not grow up, get married and have families of their own, or they risk being shunted into an even longer line — if they don’t get kicked out of the line altogether. Take the case of an immigrant who waits until after she has been sponsored by her employer to marry — she must wait another two to six years to be able to bring her spouse.

And while they wait, coming by something even as simple as a visitor visa is largely foreclosed — ironically, because the individual has already signaled their intent to follow the immigration process. 

For those whose circumstances result in an overstay or unlawful presence during that time, their ability to successfully turn decades of patience into a lawful status is often thwarted, despite extensive family ties.

Much of what people “know” about family-based immigration is actually myth, but it is indisputable that backlogs in both family-and employment-based visas keep families apart and hinder or even halt business operations. Fears of so-called “chain-migration” have no relation to the reality faced by families who are separated for years, even decades. For many, the “line” may be several years or even more than a decade long. For others, there simply is no line or no reason to get into line when other roadblocks mean the wait would be fruitless.

Family visas are only available to limited close family members: spouses, children, parents (but only of U.S. citizens over age 21), and siblings (for U.S. citizens). Cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents are not eligible. Once the set quota is reached for the year, individuals must wait for the next year. And family members are generally unable to visit the United States during that time. Moreover, the idea of “chain migration” has been inflated. At a 2006 Population Association of America meeting, researcher Bin Yu showed that the average immigrant will bring 2.1 family members to the U.S. as part of the unification process.

If we are to avoid these very same issues in the future, it is critical that immigration reform not be seen as a zero-sum game. The benefits of family reunification and targeted sponsorship are not mutually exclusive, and America benefits the most when all aspects of the system are working in balance.

Lichter is president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.