March 29, 2013 12:51PM

Many Family‐​Sponsored Immigrants Are Workers Too

The current U.S. immigration system gives more preference to the family members of American than to foreign workers. As a result, about two-thirds of immigrants who received a green card in 2011 gained it through family-sponsorship.

Some supporters of immigration reform see the family-sponsored immigration sections as a problem, arguing that family sponsorship should be scaled back while the number of workers should be increased. Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick, in their book Immigration Wars, wrote that “Narrowing the scope of family preferences [to immediate family only] would open hundreds of thousands of opportunities for immigrants even without expanding the current numbers of legal immigrants who come to the U.S. each year.”

The family-based categories they would propose eliminating add up to fewer than 140,000 green cards a year. 

Avoiding a lot of legal nuances and annual variations, this is how the family-based immigration system currently awards green cards:

  Green Card Type   



Immediate Relatives

Opposite sex spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens.

No limit


Adult unmarried children of U.S. citizens.



Opposite sex spouses and unmarried children of LPRs



Married children of U.S. citizens.



Siblings of U.S. citizens.



Many of the immigrants who come in as family-sponsored immigrants are also workers. The employment rate for family-based immigrants is 54 percent, excluding the parents and minor children of U.S. citizens because they are less likely to be of working age. Using some numbers from the Public Policy Institute of California, 38 percent of that group had less than a high school degree and 55 percent of those employed work in a low-skilled occupation.    

There is no green card category for lower-skilled immigrant workers, but the family-based immigration system allows for some who happen to be related to American citizens and green card holders. Refugees, diversity visa holders, and employment-based immigrants have higher rates of employment, but the family-based immigration system has an important and unintentional labor market component that shouldn’t be ignored. 

Just because more workers should be allowed in does not mean family immigration should be reduced by an equal amount. Immigration isn’t a budget that needs to be balanced. Worker immigration at all skill levels is severely restricted and should be loosened, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of the family immigration system, which provides entry for some lower-skilled immigrant workers. Because family members are so often workers, decreasing family immigration would also unintentionally decrease worker immigration.

End note: Numbers calculated from the New Immigrant Survey.