There's so much heat and noise about immigration these days, it's good to see articles like this that break it down into something basic and understandable.
[A]lthough the immigration system is complex, the basic problem is simple: There are many more immigrants wanting to enter than the number of visas available each year under a quota and preference system implemented by Congress.
Currently, the law gives preference to four categories of immigrants who are related to U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents, as well as to immigrants needed for employment.
However, except for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, there is an annual limit for each category, as well as a quota for each country.
So those from countries that have historically sent large numbers of immigrants -- Mexico, India, China and the Philippines, for instance -- face lengthy waits for visas to become available for relatives.
"If your brother sponsors you, it's 20 years," said veteran Houston immigration lawyer Gordon Quan. "If an employer sponsors you and you have a bachelor's degree, it's three years. And for people from India, it's seven years."
The 4 million backlog includes an estimated 1.5 million relatives of Asian immigrants, said Karen Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice Center.
The long waits to reunite families prevent many immigrants from assimilating, she said.
"That's not healthy for the family, for the community," Narasaki said. "It means it takes longer for a family to put money down for a house, because they're sending money home to a spouse."
Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton administration, said untangling family immigration will require that Congress alter the existing system.
"So as long as you have a system that defines broadly what the family relationship can be that makes you eligible to immigrate, but at same time has very few (visa) numbers available, that's a recipe for backlogs," said Meissner, now a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Those who favor limiting immigration, however, say the family preferences are too broad.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said family-related immigration should be limited to spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.
"The problem ... is that we over-promise and underdeliver," Krikorian said. "We have this smorgasbord of different categories, and they all have numerical caps leading to huge waiting lists.
"Either you triple or quadruple legal immigration, or narrow the categories of who gets to come in."