If a family member or employer petitions for you in a preference category -- that being a category with annual limits on the number of available visas -- your wait for a green card (U.S. lawful permanent residence) could be several years long. That’s because the demand for green cards is far greater than the supply.
Although it’s possible to estimate the likely wait in your category, this will be only an estimate. You will need to learn to track it, month by month, based on the Visa Bulletin published by the U.S. State Department (DOS). This system can be confusing at first.
Every government fiscal year (which starts October 1), a fresh supply of visa numbers is made available. How many depends on the numbers of people that Congress has said can get green cards in the preference categories in any one year. (For purposes of this explanation, a visa or visa number means the same thing as a green card.)
There’s just one problem. Thousands of people who applied in previous years are probably still waiting for their visa. So you won’t be able to make use of this fresh crop of visas right away.
Instead, the DOS has devised a system where the people who have been waiting longest have the first right to a visa. DOS keeps track of your place on the waiting list using the date that your family member or employer first submitted a visa petition (in the case of family applicants or self-petitioning workers) or a labor certification application (in the case of employers) on your behalf, indicating that they’d like to help you immigrate. That date is called your Priority Date.
You will need to know your Priority Date, because the whole system of figuring out where you are in your wait for a green card depends on it. The DOS’s Visa Bulletin, available online, gives you only one clue about the length of your wait: a list of the cutoff dates for people who are now getting visas and green cards. By comparing your Priority Date to this cutoff date, you’ll be able to track your progress.
Let’s take a closer look at how this works. You’ll want to open a copy of the Visa Bulletin. Find your chart -- either the one for family-based applicants or for employment-based applicants. You’ll see on the chart the preference categories are listed in the column on the left and the countries of origin are listed in the row across the top. Find your category within that chart, and see whether a separate column applies to your country of origin.
Now look at the squares on the chart containing the current visa cutoff dates. Any applicant whose Priority Date is earlier than the date on this chart has finished their wait and is eligible for an immigrant visa or green card.
Let’s say you are the brother of a U.S. citizen and you’re from the Philippines. Let’s also imagine that your brother filed a petition for you to immigrate in September of 2011. To find out what the waits are like, as you begin the process, locate your preference category in the left column (4th Preference, on the bottom line), and your country on the top row, then find the square that corresponds to both; it’s the square at the bottom right. The Priority Date listed in that square in September of 2011 was 08JUL88 (July 8, 1988). That would have told you that brothers of U.S. citizens who started this process on July 8, 1988 became eligible for green cards in September of 2011 -- about a 23 year wait! Unfortunately, that’s roughly how long you can expect to wait, starting from your September 2011 Priority Date.
The waiting periods for people from the Philippines tend to be longer than from other countries, because there are so many applicants and a limit on how many can come from any one country. Most people will wait less time. These waits are frustrating, but there is truly nothing you can do to move them along (unless your family petitioner can become a U.S. citizen, which will often put you into a higher preference category or make you an immediate relative).
As you track these dates over the years, you’ll notice they don’t advance smoothly. Sometimes they get stuck on one date for months at a time, or even go backwards. Other times your square will just say “U” for unavailable, meaning no one is eligible for a green card in that category until further notice; usually when a new fiscal year begins, in October.
But if you’re really lucky, you may see a “C,” meaning that everyone who has a visa petition on file is immediately eligible for a green card, regardless of Priority Date.
Most likely you will eventually see a date later than your own Priority Date on the Visa Bulletin chart. Then you’ll know you’re ready for the next step in obtaining your green card. The immigration authorities will advise you by mail when your Priority Date finally comes up. If you do not respond to the notification within one year, the authorities can take steps to revoke your visa petition, so make sure to send any change of address, and to respond to the letter! But it’s still worth tracking your Priority Date on your own, in case they forget to notify you.
NOTE: You can have the Visa Bulletin sent to you monthly, by email. This is a great way to make sure you don’t forget to check how your Priority Date is advancing. Complete instructions for how to subscribe to this service can be found toward the bottom of any monthly Visa Bulletin.
For more information on applying for green cards to the United States, see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo), portions of which were excerpted for this article. Or consult an experienced immigration attorney.