Prior to the Immigration Act of 1990, approximately 440,000 individuals immigrated to the U.S. annually based upon petitions
filed on their behalf by close relatives who were U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Of this total, 216,000 persons
immigrated through four family preference categories (1st Preference - unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, 2nd
preference - spouses and unmarried sons and daughters of lawful permanent residents, 4th preference - married sons and daughters
of U.S. citizens, and 5th preference - brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens). The rest immigrated as "immediate relatives"
of U.S. citizens (parents, spouses, widows and children of U.S. citizens - children being unmarried and under 21 years of
age, and, in the case of a parent of a U.S. citizen, the petitioning son or daughter being at least 21 years of age). The
law places no numerical restrictions on the immigration of immediate relatives. The 1990 law retained and renumbered the four
family preference categories. The number of visas allocated to family-sponsored immigration, including immediate relatives,
rose from 440,000 to 465,000 in fiscal year 1992, and increased to 480,000 on October 1, 1993. If there are any unused visas
from the employment-based categories, they may be used in the family preference categories.
Immediate relatives remain exempt from numerical limitations, and have first claim on family preference visas. For the
first time, however, the number of immediate relatives who obtain visas are subtracted from the total number of family-sponsored
The formula works as follows: Total number of family-sponsored visas less the number of immediate relatives who immigrated
during the previous year equals the number of visas available to the four family preference categories. Thus, if 220,000 immediate
relatives immigrate to the U.S. during fiscal year 1992, 245,000 visas will be available under the four family preference
categories during fiscal year 1993. However, the act provides that no matter how many immediate relatives immigrate to the
U.S. in a single year, a floor of at least 226,000 visas will remain available to persons in the four family preference categories.
This floor represents a small increase over the 216,000 visa numbers allotted to persons in these categories under prior law.
The definition of immediate relative was expanded to include widows of U.S. citizens provided that the alien was the spouse
of the citizen for at least two years prior to the citizen's death and was not legally separated from the citizen at the time
of his or her death. To remain eligible for immediate relative status, the immigrant spouse is required to file a petition
for permanent residence within two years after the citizen's death and before remarriage.
Most of the increase in the number of family preference visas is allocated to individuals qualifying under the 2nd preference
category. The number rose from 70,000 under prior law to at least 114,200 in fiscal year 1992. Of this number, 77% of the
visas are specifically reserved for spouses and children (unmarried and under 21 years of age) of lawful permanent residents.
Also, 75% of the visas granted to them are distributed without regard to individual country quotas. Prior to October 1991,
such quotas resulted in a 10-year wait for 2nd preference visas for persons born in Mexico and seven years for those born
in the Philippines. The act has alleviated these backlogs.
The family preference categories are as follows:
1st Preference Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S.
23,400 per year
PLUS unused visas from the 4th
preference category, if any
2nd Preference Spouses and unmarried sons and daughters
of lawful permanent residents
114,200 per year
PLUS the amount by which visas allocated
to the family preference categories
PLUS unused visas from the 1st
preference category, if any
77% of visas are reserved for spouses
and children (defined as unmarried sons
and daughters under 21 years of age) of
lawful permanent resident
3rd Preference Married sons and daughters of
(formerly 4th U.S. citizens
23,400 per year
PLUS unused visas from the
1st and 2nd preference categories, if
4th Preference Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens
Preference) 65,000 per year
PLUS unused visas from the 1st,
2nd and 3rd preference categories, if