USCIS Director: Like NYC Subway Bomber, Majority of Immigrants Get Green Card Through Family Connection

By Melanie Arter | December 13, 2017 | 11:48 AM EST

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Frank Cissna (Screenshot of White House video)

( – Of the roughly one million immigrants who come to the U.S. each year for citizenship, the vast majority get green cards because of a family connection, while a small percentage come here because of a job offer, according to Francis Cissna, director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“In any given year, we have about 1 million immigrants. One million people come here to get green cards, immigrant visas.  In fiscal year '15, for example, of that 1 million, about 72 percent of our immigrants came based on a family connection, and only 6 percent -- or about 1 out of 15 -- came based on an employment or job connection, job offer.  So you can see the immigration system is heavily weighted towards family migration,” Cissna said. 

“There are other categories of people that immigrate as well, besides just family and employment-based, including refugees, asylees, and, of course, the visa lottery people that I just referenced, but those are very small compared to those two larger categories, he added.

Cissna explained that with family-based migration, the principal category of family-based immigrants are called “immediate relatives,” or people who are spouses, children, or nuclear family members of U.S. citizens.

“In a given year, you have about half a million people in that category.  In fact, I have better numbers than that. In fiscal year '16, in that category -- these are people who are the nuclear family members of U.S. citizens -- there were about 566,000 people that immigrated,” the director told reporters at Tuesday’s White House briefing.

Another category of family-based migration is called “preference” categories or people with “more extended family connections.”

“These include unmarried -- the first category -- unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; second category -- spouses of green card holders, unmarried sons and daughters of green card holders; third category -- married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; fourth category is brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens and their children.  That's the category that yesterday's suspect came in under,” Cissna said, referring to New York City subway bomber Akayed Ullah, who was charged Tuesday with trying to carry out a suicide bomb attack on the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Ullah, who was a national of Bangladesh, came to the U.S. “based on family connection to a U.S. citizen.” The U.S. citizen who helped him get a visa was his uncle, who came to the U.S. “many years ago” as a visa lottery winner.

“So the suspect in yesterday's bombing came in under the most extreme, remote possible family-based connection that you could have under current U.S. immigration law -- that being the child of the sibling of a U.S. citizen,” Cissna said.

As far as employment based immigration, “only 140,000 slots are allocated in a year to that category, but you're only really getting about half that number of actual workers because the spouses and children don't count towards that category,” the director noted.

“There you have a number of categories, including categories for extraordinary ability of workers. You have people with advanced degrees. You have people who are skilled professionals and immigrant investors. There's multiple categories, but a much smaller number than the family-based categories. And again, I remind you, only 1 out of 15 of our immigrants come in under those skilled categories,” Cissna said.

The diversity visa, also known as the visa lottery was established in 1990, the director said, although “there were some precursor programs before that.” About 50,000 immigrants a year get green cards through the visa lottery.

“The qualifications for registering for the lottery are that you have to be from a country that had low immigration in the previous five years, and the person who's applying for the lottery has to either have a high school degree or, if they have no education, at least two years of experience in a job that requires two years of training.  So the criteria are very low,” Cissna said.

“The problems with the visa lottery are various.  First, because the criteria are so low, either you have no education at all and very little skills, or you have a minimum of education and no skills at all.  And because it's a lottery, pretty much anybody on the planet who is from a qualifying country can take advantage of this,” he said.

Cissna noted that in 2003, the State Department’s inspector general observed that the low eligibility criteria of the visa lottery “could lead to exploitation by terrorists.”

“They warned about this in 2003. The GAO, in 2007, echoed that warning -- again, warning that terrorists could take advantage of the diversity visa program,” the director said. “Also, the program is racked with fraud.”

“In 2003, the State Department IG, 15 years ago, noted that the program was rife with pervasive fraud. The fraud, the low eligibility standards, all these contribute to its potential exploitation by terrorists and other mala fide actors,” Cissna said.

Bangladesh – the country from which the NYC subway bomber emigrated – “was a high user of the visa lottery program,” Cissna noted, with 27 percent of immigrants from Bangladesh coming through the visa lotter program in 2007 – a “peak year for that country’s use of the visa lottery.”

“Uzbekistan, which was the country of origin of the alleged -- the truck driver from October 31st in New York City -- in 2010, 70 percent of immigrants from Uzbekistan came through the visa lottery program. So that program is used as a prime avenue for immigration for many countries,” he said. 

“Finally, let me touch on the subject of chain migration.  When I use that word, what I'm talking about is a person who comes to this country and who, in turn, employs one of these many avenues that I just described, principally family-based, to sponsor relatives who are in the home country to come and join him or her,” Cissna said.

“Because the categories that we have that I just described in family-based migration are so extensive, it's not just nuclear family.  You also have, as I say, adult unmarried children; brothers and sisters; nieces and nephews. You can sponsor a person like yesterday's alleged terrorist at the extremity of that chain, and then that person, in turn, can sponsor people and so on, and so on, indefinitely,” he said.

Hundreds of thousands of people come to the U.S. annually based on extended-family migration categories, Cissna noted.

“And it is my view, it our administration's view, that that is not the way that we should be running our immigration system.  A system like that, that includes something like the diversity visa program, these extended-family categories are not the way anybody would have designed this immigration system if we could start from scratch today,” he said.

Instead, Cissna called for a “selective” immigration system where immigration officials can “select the types of people that are coming here based on criteria that ensure their success; criteria that ensure their ability to assimilate successfully in our country.” Lottery-based visas and extended-family connections are not “the way to run our immigration system,” he said.

The director called on Congress to “seriously take into account these concerns that we have with the way the immigration system is structured and its vulnerabilities, as I just described, and correct that.”


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