How to Read the Visa Bulletin

There are two categories of non-citizens admitted to the United States: immigrants and nonimmigrants. Apart from H nonimmigrants, there is no annual cap on the number of nonimmigrants that can be admitted to the United States. The U.S. does, however, place annual caps on the number of immigrants that can be admitted to the country.

The current system provides for four broad categories of immigrants, each governed by its own rules and ceilings. They are:

  1. family-sponsored immigrants
  2. employment-based immigrants
  3. diversity immigrants
  4. refugees

Limits on Each Category of Immigrant Admissions

The 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act established ceilings on the non-refugee admissions of immigrants to the United States. Following are the number of immigrant visas allotted for each category annually:

  • Family-based immigrants 480,000
  • Employment-based immigrants 140,000
  • Diversity 55,000
    • TOTAL 675,000

The family-based category is further broken down into sub-categories, the first of which is immediate relatives. Immediate relatives are the spouses and children of U.S. citizens and, if the petitioning citizen is over 21, the parents as well. No quotas apply to immediate relatives. All who have the qualifying parent-child or spouse relationship with the U.S. citizen qualify, making this the highest favored of all immigration categories.

In contrast to immediate relatives, the family-sponsored preference categories are subject to annual numerical ceilings. When there are more applicants than admission spaces, which has been the case for decades, backlogs develop. Admissions are processed within each family preference in chronological order, based on the time when the visa petition or other document initiating the visa application was filed with the immigration authorities.

The family-based preferences are as follows:

  1. First Preference (23,400 admissions per year)- Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.
    • Note that this category is for unmarried sons and daughters over the age of 21, since if the child was under the age of 21 he/she would qualify as an immediate relative.
    • Those who were married and have since gotten a divorce are considered “unmarried” for purposes of this preference category.
  2. Second Preference (114,200 admissions per year)- Spouses and unmarried sons and daughters of lawful permanent resident (LPR) aliens (“green card” holders).
    • This category is further broken down as follows: 
      • 2A- Spouses and minor children of LPRs
      • 2B- Unmarried sons and daughters of LPRs (Divorcees are considered “unmarried” for purposes of this category)
  3. Third Preference (23,400 admissions per year)- Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.
    • Note that this category is for married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens regardless of how old the son or daughter is. Even if the son or daughter is under age 21, he/she ceases to be an “immediate relative” upon getting married.
  4. Fourth Preference (65,000 admissions per year)- Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.

The employment-based preferences are as follows:

  1. First Preference (40,000 admissions per year)- Priority workers.
    • This is further broken down to include
      • aliens with extraordinary ability, which requires the alien to have sustained national or international acclaim)
      • outstanding professors and researchers
      • certain multinational executives and managers
  2. Second Preference (40,000 admissions per year)-  Professionals holding advanced degrees or their equivalent or who, “because of their exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business, will substantially benefit prospectively the national economy, cultural or educational interests, or welfare of the United States.”
  3. Third Preference (40,000 admissions per year)- Professionals having only a baccalaureate degree, and skilled and unskilled workers who would fill positions for which there is a shortage of American workers. (No more than 10,000 unskilled workers may be admitted each year).
  4. Fourth Preference (10,000 admissions per year)- Special Immigrants, including religious workers, former long-time employees of the U.S. government or of international organizations, as well as other miscellaneous groups.
  5. Fifth Preference (10,000 admissions per year)- Investors whose investments will create a minimum of 10 jobs in the U.S. economy. The baseline minimum investment is $1,050,000 million, but can be lowered if the investment is in a rural or high unemployment area. It is increased if the business is set up in an area with low unemployment.
    • These immigrants are given conditional permanent resident status upon entering the U.S., meaning that they are interviewed after 2 years of permanent residence to ensure that they did not submit fraudulent applications. After 2 years the conditions of their residence can be removed.

Per- Country Limits For Preference Immigrants

In addition to limiting the number of immigrants who can be admitted to the U.S. in any fiscal year, Congress has also set an annual limit on the percentage of immigrants who can come to the U.S. annually. For example, nationals of no one country can use more than 7% of the total family-sponsored immigrant visa numbers allotted for each year. In terms of numbers, that means that no more than 25,620 immigrants from each country can enter the U.S. per year. If more than 25,620 nationals of any one country apply for family-based immigrant visas to the U.S. in a given year, a backlog starts for that country. Currently India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines exceed the allotted number of family-sponsored immigrant visas each year; therefore these countries each have a separate backlog for the family-based preference categories. These backlogs can be seen in the Visa Bulletin

How Can I Know Whether A Visa Is Available for Me?

The Department of State is the government agency that allocates visas, as well as counting the number of visas issued each year. Every month, the Department of State publishes a Visa Bulletin, which is updated monthly by the U.S. Department of State that summarizes the availability of immigrant visa numbers.

The Visa Bulletin has two charts for both family- and employment-based cases - Dates for Filing and Final Action Dates. Department of State will publish which chart can be used each month for filing new Adjustment of States applications or beginning Consular Processing. The Visa Bulletin charts list each family-based and employment-based category and shows the priority date of the petitions they are currently working on.

Each immigrant visa petition is assigned a priority date. The priority date is generally the date on which the immigrant petition was submitted or, in the case of employment-based petitions requiring Labor Certification, the priority date is the date on which the Labor Certification application was submitted to the Department of Labor. The priority date is listed on the I-130, I-140, or I-360 Receipt and/or Approval Notice. The priority date establishes the order in which the immigrant visa application will be assigned an available visa number.

For example, if a citizen of Canada has a brother who is a U.S. citizen, the U.S. citizen brother can file a family-based immigrant petition on his behalf. If he files the petition on October 12, 2014, the priority date will be the date on which USCIS receives the petition, probably around October 14, 2014. Therefore, we look at the Visa Bulletin's 4th preference category for family based petitions, which is for Brothers and Sisters of U.S. citizens. It shows that currently visa numbers are available for petitions that have a priority date prior to March 22, 2007. This shows that visa numbers are backlogged for approximately 15 years in this category and that the Canadian  in the scenario above will have a long wait to enter the U.S.

It is virtually impossible to determine exactly how long that wait will be. It can be estimated that if there is currently a 15-year backlog, then it will take approximately 15 years for a number to be available for a petition submitted now. However, that is not necessarily accurate. For example, if an extraordinarily large number of 4th preference petitions were for some reason filed during any year between 2002 and present, the backlog will increase and the Canadian mentioned above will have to wait even longer. Or, if there is a drop off in the number of fourth preference petitions submitted for a fiscal year, or for several years, the backlog could rapidly reduce and a visa number may become available in less than 15 years. In making these kinds of calculations, it is sometimes helpful to look at past Visa Bulletins to see if there is a pattern in how the visa availability dates have moved in the past. It is possible that this pattern will repeat. In any case, such speculations yield up, at best, estimates.

The same type of analysis that we applied to the Canadian citizen can be applied to anyone applying for either a family-based or an employment-based immigrant visa of any category.

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