The Biden administration has started a program to allow some Central and South Americans who are stuck in the family visa backlog to come to the United States and reunite with their relatives while they wait for their immigrant visas to become available. But while the new programs could help nearly 75,000 people, its success will depend on the effort and resources the federal government commits to them.
The new Family Reunification Parole programs, for people from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, are modeled on programs that were created for Cubans in 2007 and Haitians in 2014. All rely on the federal government’s statutory authority to allow people to come to and stay in the United States legally, without a visa, on a case-by-case basis.
In the Federal Register notices published this week formally announcing the four new programs, the administration touts them as another example of “creation and expansion of lawful pathways” for people to come to the United States, rather than coming to the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization.
Since coming into office, the Biden administration has used parole to allow Afghan and Ukrainian refugees to temporarily enter the country. It has also used parole to admit up to 30,000 people per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to stay for two-year periods. These programs opened up opportunities to people who might not have had another way to come to the U.S. legally. But none offer any pathway to permanent status, and all of them are temporary.
Unlike those programs, Family Reunification Parole is limited only to people who already have a way to immigrate to the U.S. legally—and, in fact, have already been approved to do so. And it will allow them to stay until they are ultimately given green cards.
Congress has capped the number of people who can receive immigrant visas each year for adult children of U.S. citizens (with separate caps for married and unmarried children); unmarried adult children of green-card holders; and siblings of U.S. citizens. But many more people apply for those visas – and are approved – than there are slots available: The Federal Register notices estimated that there are 73,500 people from all four newly eligible countries stuck in these backlogs, with 32,600 from El Salvador alone. Without the new parole opportunity, the government estimates, they could be waiting for visas for up to 15 years.
But that doesn’t mean all 73,500 of them will now be allowed to come to the United States. The scope of FRP—like its Cuban and Haitian predecessors—is determined by how many people the U.S. State Department individually invites to apply.
For these programs, the federal government looks through its existing backlog of approved immigrant visa petitions filed by family members in the United States on behalf of their adult children and siblings. It then invites some of those people to apply for FRP within six months of the invitation. If they apply in time and the application for parole is also approved, the family members will be allowed to fly into the U.S. and stay while waiting for their immigrant visas to become available. At that point, they’ll become green-card holders—just as they would if they had been waiting outside the U.S.
The government cautions it will not issue invitations to everyone who’s potentially eligible. But it also doesn’t offer any estimate of how many people will be invited. The USCIS webpage about the new FRPs says only that, “The number of invitations will be based on U.S. government operational capacity.”
The Cuban and Haitian Family Reunification Parole programs offer a reason to be cautious. The government doesn’t make numbers of Cuban FRP beneficiaries available, and its last report on Haitian beneficiaries—based on three rounds of invitations between 2014 and 2016 – disclosed that about 12,500 invitations to apply had been issued, and 8,300 applications approved.
The Biden administration characterizes its agenda simply: it wants to redirect people away from unauthorized migration and toward coming here legally. But it’s not clear how many people who have already been approved for future immigration to the U.S. are crossing without authorization because they can’t wait for their number to come up. Without knowing how many people are going to be invited to apply to begin with, it’s hard to know how well this will accomplish the administration’s stated goals.
It’s possible that implementation of the FRP might happen in conjunction with another newly created administration effort to encourage legal migration: the Safe Mobility Offices the U.S. government has opened in Guatemala, Colombia, and Costa Rica. The Safe Mobility Offices are supposed to offer people the chance to figure out what options they have for legal status in the U.S. (as well as Canada and Spain), thus (in theory) encouraging them to apply legally rather than come to the U.S.-Mexico border. But in practice, only certain people are currently allowed to seek appointments in each of the three offices, and there are many open questions about what their ultimate scope will be.
By creating the new FRPs, the Biden administration is using its executive authority to close the gap between what the U.S. immigration system promises—that U.S. citizens and permanent residents shouldn’t have to choose between living in the U.S. and keeping their families together—and what it can reliably deliver. How much progress is made in narrowing that gap, though, is up to the government itself.