AILA Immigration Basics & Glossary

Family Immigration

America has long recognized that strengthening our families is a core national value and interest, and we must continue our historic commitment to bringing families together through our immigration policy. Each year, the United States grants visas to a limited number of people who have close family ties to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents.

Legal immigration is essential to ensuring the continued vitality of the American economy and society. Many small businesses are run by immigrants who came to the United States through the family immigration system, and studies show immigrants are more likely to be entrepreneurs than those born in the United States. These are the businesses that promote the renewal of city neighborhoods and commercial districts, while immigrants and their families strengthen communities and bring diversity to local cultural resources.

Because more people qualify than there are visas available through the preference system each year, many close family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents end up waiting in significant backlogs. For example, spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents must wait more than two years to unite with their families, while the adult children of lawful permanent residents could wait more than 10 years. Despite the high demand for visas that result in long waiting periods, in most years, some visas allocated by statute are not used due to bureaucratic delays in processing. Under current law, these visas are wasted and cannot be used in future years.

AILA recommends the following reforms to our family-based immigration system: reduce the multi-year wait for a visa to become available, recapture family-based visas that were not used in past years, allow law-abiding families to reunite with loved ones within a humane and reasonable time period, and treat same-sex families equally in all aspects of immigration law where a qualifying family relationship is required.

Green Cards for Businesses:

Current immigration policy places a cap of 140,000 on employment-based immigrant visas, which are divided into five preference categories. These categories are: priority workers; professionals holding advanced degrees or persons of exceptional ability; skilled workers; special immigrants; and employment creation investors. Spouses and children accompanying the worker count toward the cap. Just as in the family immigration system, significant backlogs exist in the employment-based green card system even as U.S. businesses face a variety of skill needs and a shortage of American workers to fill those needs. Depending on the country they come from, some of these skilled workers are facing unfathomable wait times.

Talented immigrants have made and continue to make crucial contributions to the development of next-generation technologies and have founded some of the most innovative businesses in the United States. As global economic integration deepens, sustainable growth will depend in part on our continued ability to attract the brightest innovators. To alleviate the severe backlog problem, policy reforms should allow for the use of unused employment-based visas from prior years while exempting spouses and children-as well as graduates from U.S. institutions in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math-from employment-based green card limits.

Nonimmigrant Visas/The Future Flow

A nonimmigrant is foreign national legally in the United States for a specific purpose, such as tourism, business, studies, seasonal work, or specialty work. A nonimmigrant may only stay for a set, temporary period of time.

Seasonal Worker

The H-2B visa is used for temporary, non-agricultural seasonal/intermittent workers. The H-2B visa is vital to America's small businesses and thus to America's economic recovery. H-2Bs are capped at 66,000 visas per year, equally split between the winter and summer seasons. This is the same arbitrary number set by Congress over 20 years ago, in 1990. The H-2B is the only way for small business owners to legally hire workers for temporary and seasonal positions when they cannot find American workers to hire. Small and seasonal businesses have every incentive to hire any qualified American who applies for a seasonal or temporary short-term position. Nevertheless, even in this economy, positions remain unfilled, leaving these businesses desperately in need of workers. This is not surprising, as these jobs typically involve low-skilled and semi-skilled labor, work at remote locations, and are only short-term in duration. A proposed solution to reform the H-2B program includes reauthorizing a provision that allows workers returning to an employer for whom they had worked during the previous season to not be counted against the annual 66,000 visa cap.

Specialty Occupations

The H-1B enables U.S. employers to hire, on a temporary basis, highly educated foreign professionals for "specialty occupation" jobs that require at least a bachelor's degree or the equivalent in the field of specialty. U.S. businesses turn to H-1B workers to alleviate temporary shortages of U.S. professionals in specific occupations, and/or to acquire special expertise in overseas economic trends and issues. This is an important aspect of ensuring that U.S. businesses remain competitive in global markets. Prior to the global economic downturn that started around 2007, U.S. businesses would almost immediately apply for every single H-1B visa available for that year. However, recent trends indicate that during economic downturns, U.S. business demand for highly skilled workers is lower than during times of prosperity. One immediate solution for the H-1B visa category would be to exempt U.S.-educated workers with advanced degrees from the H-1B cap. Another solution would be to amend the law to allow unused H-1B visas from previous fiscal years to be reclaimed in future years. Current law allocates a fixed number of H-1B visas each year, but visas that are not used due to administrative processing delays, are lost and cannot be used in future years. The H-1B category could be improved by permitting work authorization for spouses of H-1B visa holders who are forbidden under current law to work while in the United States. Finally, since businesses that need H-1B workers are oftentimes medium and small businesses, any new proposal must be scaled in a way to ensure that the cost of going through the H-1B process does not become unduly burdensome on these businesses.

The Future Flow

In the current debate over immigration reform, those with more restrictive views of immigration policies say that we should not bring any new foreign workers into the United States. However, the demand for foreign workers reflects the market demands and needs in our economy. Immigration reforms must include a system for new legal work visas that is flexible enough to meet the needs of the economy and provide American businesses with access to essential workers in the U.S. The system must also protect workers' rights, guarantee fair wages and working conditions, and provide workers with a means to apply for green cards if they choose to do so. The number of temporary non-immigrant visas for less-skilled workers in seasonal and non-agricultural occupations, the H-2B visa is capped at 66,000 per year. For temporary agricultural workers there is the H-2A visa, but this program is too bogged down in bureaucracy and is not responsive to the constantly changing labor demands in the agriculture industry. In addition to the H-2B and H-2A non-immigrant visa, 5,000 permanent employment-based green cards are allotted each year to workers (and their immediate families) in less-skilled jobs. Taken together, these very limited numbers comprise the annual allotment of workers in the less-skilled or "essential worker" category.