Some of the countries that experience the longest wait times are China, the Philippines, India and Mexico.
Georgia Garcia Dolar has been waiting more than 30 years to immigrate from the Philippines.
"It just occurred to me, in doing the math, my aunt was younger than I am right now when this process started - by a lot," said Michael Milan, Garcia Dolar's nephew. "That's an entire lifetime."
She was petitioned by both her mother and sister in the 80s. In November 2020, her application was denied, citing proclamations signed by former President Donald Trump. Now, her case will have to be reconsidered. Her mother passed away in 2014 and her sister, Michael's mother, is now in her 80s. She worked as an ICU nurse in Southern California for about 30 years, taking care of others.
"I was emotionally depressed because I... really want to go to the states to be able to serve my sister, and to be with her because she's already 80 years old," said Garcia Dolar over a video Zoom call. "I wanted her to be with me until the last years of her life."
Milan joined the Value our Families campaign, which advocates for policies that would address the backlog that leaves families waiting up to 20 years or in some cases - like Garcia Dolar's - more.
"I guess that the most painful and the most challenging parts of this process: there are people on the other side of these forms that are being submitted, and multiply our family's story by several thousand - this is not uncommon," said Milan.
The Value our Families campaign is lobbying support the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a bill President Joe Biden sent to Congress. Among other things, it would increase the 7% cap on visas to 20%.
"Under our current law...a certain country can have no more than 7% of all visa applications. And so, if that country hits that limit, then those people that are waiting in that line, would pause in that line, and people from different countries would get processed ahead of them," explained John C. Yang, executive director and president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an organization helping lead the campaign.
Part of the reason Garcia Dolar has waited so long is also because there's priority based on the sponsor's relationship to the applicant.
"If you are the spouse or a minor child of a current U.S. citizen, number one: you are not subject to these caps, and number two: it is basically immediate. In other words, you do go through the normal processing, the normal background checks of getting a visa application, but you are not subjected to the same limits that we're talking about," said Yang.
Lawful permanent residents, also known as green card holders, can petition spouses and children, but it takes longer. The very last preference is for siblings of U.S. citizens, the category Garcia Dolar is in.
"If they could help me, possibly, that I can go there before my sister will be gone because I want to be able to serve her, to take good care of her," she said.
"I think that our government can do a lot more and do right by these families, who have an interest in making America their new home," said Milan.