Fewer family visas approved as Trump toughens vetting of immigrants
Demonstrators march during the "Day Without Immigrants" protest in Washington, DC, February 16, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

President Donald Trump is ramping up calls on the U.S. Congress to stop legal immigrants from sponsoring extended family members who want to move to the United States, saying so-called "chain migration" poses a threat to national security.

Even without legislative action, however, the number of immigrants approved for family-based visas has dropped this year to the lowest level in more than a decade, a Reuters review of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) data shows. The drop has not been previously reported.

For a graphic on chain migration, click http://tmsnrt.rs/2CaWNJb

The Trump administration has taken a series of measures to more closely scrutinize legal immigration. These steps have been overshadowed by Trump's more public efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, such as his calls for a wall along the Mexican border and more arrests of people living in the country illegally.

Lately though, Trump has increasingly been taking aim at chain migration, saying it allows a single immigrant "to bring in dozens of increasingly distant relations," with "no real selection criteria." He said a Bangladeshi man who set off a homemade pipe bomb in a crowded New York City commuter hub in December was a prime example of the dangers of the system.

Immigration advocates counter that no one automatically qualifies for a visa because a relative is already in the United States. All immigrants undergo security vetting and can face years-long waits before they are given a green light.

The intensified focus on chain migration has been accompanied by an overall slowdown in adjudications of family-based visas, known as I-130s, the Reuters review shows.

The number of approvals dropped by nearly a quarter in the first nine months of 2017 to around 406,000 compared to the same period a year earlier when approvals were more than 530,000, despite a similar number of applications during both periods, USCIS data showed.

The drop was even starker when looking only at I-130s approved for relatives who were not immediate family members. Those fell by 70 percent in the same period, from more than 108,000 in the first nine months of 2016 to 32,500 in the same period in 2017.

The entire 2017 fiscal year had the lowest number of approvals for extended family visas since 2000.

USCIS said that since there are a limited number of visas for this category, it prioritizes processing visas that are more immediately available. The agency also said there are normal year-to-year fluctuations in the number of visas that are filed and decided.  

At the core of the administration's long-term policy goal is a belief that immigration should be merit-based.

"Those people are just coming in based on connection to a family member," the new director of USCIS, L. Francis Cissna said in a telephone interview, referring to chain migrants. "That lack of selectivity; it takes us away from where we want to go as a country."

Cissna said no specific policy guidance has been put in place at USCIS to change the way family-based visas are issued. He also said there were no plans to restrict visas for immediate family members and pointed out that approvals of visas and citizenship applications overall are still high.

He has said, however, that his agency is looking closely at all visa categories to root out fraud. USCIS said separately that closer scrutiny could lead to longer processing times.

For example, H-1B temporary work visas for high-skilled workers are facing more hurdles, and applications are receiving far more requests for evidence, slowing down the whole program, according to immigration lawyers and data provided by the government.

USCIS has also put in place new interview requirements for U.S. citizens seeking to bring over their fiancés. In the first nine months of 2017, approvals of fiancé visas dropped by 35 percent over the same period a year earlier, the Reuters data review found.