restricted access More Liberal Than We Thought: A Note on Immediate Family Member Immigrants of U.S. Citizens
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More Liberal Than We Thought:
A Note on Immediate Family Member Immigrants of U.S. Citizens

Since the enactment of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, a growing number of persons have achieved immigrant status because they were "immediate family members" of United States citizens (defined as spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of adult U.S. citizens). Entering as an immediate family member has a huge advantage: there was no limit in numbers compared to the regular preferences. For some nations, many of the regular categories were backlogged for years, but immediate family members could usually be approved in less than one year.

In 1968, the year the Hart-Celler Act became effective, immediate family members totaled 43,670, which was not too far from the number predicted when the legislators were debating the new immigration law.1 Yet the growing number of immediate family members quickly became a major source for immigration. In 1996, immediate family members of U.S. citizens totaled 300,439, about one-third of the immigration for that year.2 By the first decade of the twenty-first century, immediate family members had become the major source for immigration. The table below indicates this pattern for the years 2008-10. Immediate family members accounted for over 40 percent of immigrants, and were nearly one-half in 2009.

Year 2008 2009 2010

Number 488,483 535,554 476,414
Percent of Immigrants 44.1 47.4 45.7

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Of these newcomers in 2010, spouses accounted for 271,909, children 88,297, and parents 116,208. The figures for children also include orphans adopted abroad and their numbers were usually around 20,000 annually in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Many of these new immigrants were already in the United States and had adjusted their status to become Green Card holders, but adjustment of status was also becoming an important part of the new immigration.3

Before the restrictions of the 1920s, there was little need for a policy on family members for Europeans because Europe had no quotas. Practically all Asians were barred from immigration. In 1924, Congress established quotas for Europeans but also created the category of nonquota members for the Eastern Hemisphere. Among these nonquota immigrants were minor children and wives of U.S. citizens. In 1928, Congress amended the law to permit female citizens to bring in their husbands and children, provided they married before that year. Congress later changed the date for women citizens, but U.S. citizen women were not on an equal footing with men until the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act was passed in 1952.4 A Senate Judiciary Committee reported that between 1925 and 1948, 231,299 wives of U.S. citizens had become immigrants, but the figure for husbands of female citizens was only 12,788. When the War Brides laws were enacted after World War II, the figure jumped to 117,999 for wives compared to 327 husbands in 1949. Men, especially those in the military after World War II, were more apt to travel or be stationed abroad and meet and marry foreigners.5 Supporters of the McCarran-Walter Act did not think the change was controversial, stating that nonquota status should be granted to a person who is "the child or the spouse of an American citizen, without restriction because of sex and race."6 The rationale was, "It would seem, however that there should be no distinction in the treatment of husbands and wives of America citizens. The underlying principle should be to maintain the family unit, which could be accomplished by removing the inequality in the treatment of husbands of American citizens."7 The law ended this inequity.8 As historian Robert Divine noted, the change was a "minor recommendation."9

The Western Hemisphere was left untouched in the 1920s legislation and all immigrants from there were considered nonquota, a provision kept by the McCarran-Walter Act. The regular restrictions such as a head tax and a literacy test were supposed to keep down the numbers from south of the American border, but railroad and agricultural interests were successful in insisting that...