Family-Based Immigration: Understanding the Path to Reunification for California Families

Family-Based Immigration in California

Family-based immigration is a cornerstone of the U.S. immigration system, allowing U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor eligible relatives for permanent residency, also known as a green card. With a diverse immigrant population, California sees a significant number of family-based immigration applications each year. Martin Fontes, an experienced immigration attorney with offices in Riverside and Santa Ana, has represented thousands of immigrants and their families in the family-based immigration process. In this blog post, we will provide an overview of family-based immigration, its categories, and the application process, with a focus on California residents.

Categories of Family-Based Immigration

Family-based immigration is divided into two primary categories: immediate relatives and family preference.

Immediate Relatives

Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens receive special consideration under U.S. immigration law, as there are no annual limits on the number of visas issued in this category. Immediate relatives include:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens
  • Unmarried children under 21 years of age of U.S. citizens
  • Parents of U.S. citizens (if the sponsoring citizen is at least 21 years old)

Family Preference

The family preference category covers more distant relatives and has annual visa limits. These limits often result in significant wait times for visa availability. Family preference categories are as follows:

  • F1: Unmarried adult children (21 years or older) of U.S. citizens
  • F2: Spouses, minor children, and unmarried adult children of lawful permanent residents (green card holders)
  • F3: Married children of U.S. citizens, along with their spouses and minor children
  • F4: Siblings of U.S. citizens, as well as their spouses and minor children (the sponsoring citizen must be at least 21 years old)

The Family-Based Immigration Process

The family-based immigration process involves multiple steps, which may vary depending on the petitioner’s status (U.S. citizen or permanent resident) and the beneficiary’s location (inside or outside the U.S.).

1. Filing a Petition

The process starts with the U.S. citizen or permanent resident (the petitioner) filing a Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) (1). This form establishes the qualifying family relationship between the petitioner and the beneficiary (the foreign relative).

2. Visa Availability

Once USCIS approves the I-130 petition, the beneficiary must wait for their priority date to become current. A priority date is the date when the I-130 petition was filed. Immediate relatives do not need to wait, as visas are always available for this category. However, for family preference categories, visa availability depends on the annual limits and demand for visas in each category. The U.S. Department of State publishes a monthly Visa Bulletin that provides information on visa availability (2).

3. Application for Permanent Residence

Once a visa becomes available, the beneficiary can apply for permanent residence. The process depends on whether the beneficiary is inside or outside the United States.

  • Inside the U.S.: If the beneficiary is already in the U.S., they can file a Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, with USCIS (3). During this process, they may be required to attend an interview and complete a medical examination.
  • Outside the U.S.: If the beneficiary is outside the U.S., they will need to apply for an immigrant visa through consular processing. This involves completing a Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application, and attending an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate (4). The beneficiary must also undergo a medical examination and submit supporting documents, such as police clearance certificates, marriage or birth certificates, and financial documents.

Approval and Green Card Issuance

Upon approval of the permanent residence application, the beneficiary will receive their green card. For those inside the U.S., USCIS will mail the green card, while those outside the U.S. will receive an immigrant visa in their passport, which they will use to enter the U.S. Upon arrival, they will receive their green card by mail.

Common Issues and Challenges in Family-Based Immigration

Family-based immigration can be a complex and lengthy process, with several potential challenges for California families:

  1. Long wait times: Due to annual visa limits, beneficiaries in the family preference categories often face extended wait times, sometimes lasting several years. These wait times can be particularly long for residents of certain countries, such as Mexico, the Philippines, and India, due to high demand for visas from these nations (2).
  2. Affidavit of Support: Petitioners must demonstrate their ability to financially support the beneficiary by submitting an Affidavit of Support (Form I-864) (5). This requirement ensures that the beneficiary will not become a public charge, or reliant on government assistance. In some cases, a joint sponsor may be needed if the petitioner does not meet the minimum income requirements.
  3. Inadmissibility grounds: Beneficiaries may be deemed inadmissible to the U.S. for various reasons, such as prior immigration violations, criminal convictions, or health issues. In some cases, waivers may be available to overcome these grounds of inadmissibility.

Family-Based Immigration and California-Specific Considerations

California’s diverse population and strong immigrant communities mean that many residents may be eligible for family-based immigration. California residents should be aware of local resources and considerations:

  1. USCIS offices: California hosts multiple USCIS field offices, including locations in Riverside and Santa Ana, where applicants can attend interviews and receive assistance with their applications (6).
  2. State-level support: California offers a variety of state-funded programs to assist immigrants, such as healthcare access, education, and legal services (7). These resources can be particularly beneficial for family-based immigrants as they adjust to life in the United States.
  3. Legal representation: Retaining an experienced immigration attorney, like Martin Fontes of Fontes Law Group, can help guide California families through the complex family-based immigration process, addressing potential issues and ensuring the best possible outcome.

Family-based immigration provides an opportunity for U.S. citizens and permanent residents in California to reunite with their loved ones from abroad.

Understanding the process, requirements, and potential challenges can help families navigate this complex system and achieve their immigration goals.


  1. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). (n.d.). Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. Retrieved from
  2. U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). Visa Bulletin. Retrieved from
  3. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). (n.d.). Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Retrieved from
  4. U.S. Department of State. (n.d.). Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application. Retrieved from
  5. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). (n.d.). Form I-864, Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A