Moving away from home is never easy, even within the same country. When you’re crossing international borders, the whole process gets a lot more complicated. Because of the difficulty of navigating the US immigration process, it’s common for families to be split across borders, with one or more members in the US and the rest in another country. While there are certainly unlawful options for bringing split families together across the US border, there are also provisions in immigration law for family reunification to help bypass the standard (time-consuming) immigration process.
In fact, family reunification is the most common avenue by which people immigrate to the US, accounting for about 2/3 of permanent immigration to the country every year. Take Mexico, for example. Mexico accounts for 28% of all immigrants to the US (more than any other country) and upwards of 90% are for family reunification.
So, how does family reunification work?
Family Reunification Visas
First, let’s take a look a look at what family reunification means in legal terms. Essentially, a family member living in the US as either a citizen or a permanent resident (a green card holder) can sponsor another family member to get a visa to move to the US. Every application starts with the Form I-130 – the Petition For Alien Relative. After that, the specific rules depend on your citizenship status.
If you’re a citizen, you and your family have several options for going through the immigration process. You can apply for a green card, a fiance visa, or a K-3/K-4 visa, depending on your relationship to the family member.
You can apply for a green card for your immediate relatives, meaning your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21. If you’re over 21, that category also includes your parents. For those relatives, visas are always available – you don’t have to wait for the usual immigration process. You’ll need to file the I-130 to start the process and another form to prove that you can financially support the person planning to immigrate. If your family member is already residing in the US, there’s a separate form to adjust their status to permanent residency.
You can also apply for a green card for your adult children and parents, but visas will not necessarily be immediately available. Visas for those relatives will be given out according to a priority system. The adult, unmarried children of US citizens have top priority, married children of citizens have third priority, and siblings of adult citizens have fourth priority.
If you want to marry a foreign national, you can apply for a fiance visa. That applies to your fiance and your fiance’s children (under the age of 21). It allows your fiance to enter the US for 90 days, during which time you must get married. You’ll have to prove that both of you are legally able to get married. You’ll also have to show that you’ve met in person at least once within 2 years of filing for the visa (unless your cultural or religious customs forbid it or you can show that it would be an extreme hardship). Once you get married, your spouse can apply for permanent residence status and stay in the US while the application is processed. Note that your spouse can apply for employment authorization as soon as the fiance visa is approved.
If you’re waiting for approval for the immigration of your spouse or children, you can apply for a K-3 or K-4 visa application to bring them into the country. This gives them “nonimmigrant status.” You must file an I-130 application before filing for a K-3/K-4 (using the same forms as a fiance visa) and once that green card application is approved, they immediately become permanent residents. If the green card application is denied, the K-3/K-4 status automatically expires after 30 days and they’ll have to leave the country. Certain other events can also affect your family’s K-3/K-4 status, so you’ll need to work with an immigration lawyer to make sure that’s the best option for you.
Green Card Holders
If you have a green card, the immigration process for your family is somewhat more limited. You can sponsor your spouse and your children for a green card, but not your siblings or parents. Visas for these family members will be given out according to certain preference categories. As mentioned above, unmarried, adult children of US citizens have first preference. The spouses and unmarried children of green card holders have second preference.
Refugees And Asylum Seekers
If you were granted asylum or entered the US as a refugee within the past 2 years, you can apply for asylum or refugee status for your spouse and any children that were unmarried and under 21 when you applied for asylum or refugee status.
To use this process, you must still have asylum or refugee status yourself. If you’ve become a permanent resident, you’ll need to use the immigration process for the family members of green card holders (described above). You also have to be the principal refugee or asylum-seeker; you can’t use this process if you got that status through another family member. Finally, you and your spouse had to be married before you received asylum or refugee status and your child had to be conceived before you received that status in order for them to qualify.
Getting Help With The Family Reunification Process
You can see that there are a lot of options for family reunification and they can get pretty complicated. It’s easiest if you’re a US citizen; otherwise you may have to wade through a lot of paperwork and potentially long wait times to bring your family together. Consider getting help from an experienced immigration attorney in your area to help guide you through the process and ensure that your family has the best possible chance of being reunited.