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Statutes of Liberty: Why you’ll wait forever for a green card (unless you’re Justin Bieber)

This sponsored column is by Law Office of James Montana PLLC. All questions about it should be directed to James Montana, Esq., Doran Shemin, Esq., Janice Chen, Esq., and Austen Soare, Esq., practicing attorneys at The Law Office of James Montana PLLC, an immigration-focused law firm located in Falls Church, Virginia. The legal information given here is general in nature. If you want legal advice, contact us for an appointment.

We’ve previously addressed how to apply for a green card, and how it can take a very long time to get one. Most people permanently immigrate to the United States in one of two ways. The first way is by having a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder) relative. The second way is through a U.S. employer seeking to hire a foreign national.

For many people, getting a green card is a “hurry up and wait” situation. Why does it take so long? In this article, we’re here to explain why.

Justin Bieber has a shorter wait time for a green card than you do. The law really is silly sometimes.

In the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Congress created various categories of green cards for both family and employment green card cases. This classification system lives on, with modifications, to this day. In family cases, the categories are broken down by the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident’s familial relationship with the immigrant. In employment cases, the categories are broken down by employment type or qualifications required for the job.

In the family context, there are four categories: (1) unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens; (2) spouses and unmarried children (both adults and minors) of lawful permanent residents; (3) married adult children of U.S. citizens; and (4) siblings of U.S. citizens.

In the employment context, there are five categories: (1) priority workers who are of extraordinary ability, a.k.a. geniuses or movie stars; (2) members of a profession holding advanced degrees or persons of exceptional ability; (3) skilled workers, professionals, and other workers; (4) special immigrants, which includes religious workers, juveniles who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents, and international organization retirees; and finally (5) investors.

In both family and employment cases, there are only a certain number of visas available in each category every fiscal year. On top of that, those visas are further allocated depending on the immigrant’s country of birth. The countries are broken down as follows: (1) mainland-born Chinese (including Hong Kong); (2) India; (3) Mexico; (4) Philippines; and (5) all other countries.

Because Congress has not increased the number of visas available in any given category over 30 years, there is a horrendous backlog for both family and employment-based cases. Sometimes we hear that people should just “wait in line” to immigrate. But how long is the wait, exactly?

The wait time depends on your so-called “priority date.” When either an employment or family petition is filed on behalf of an immigrant, the immigrant receives a priority date. That is the date that the U.S. government received the petition or other relevant documents in that person’s case. The priority date saves the immigrant’s place in the line for a green card.

Once armed with the priority date, we can look at the Visa Bulletin. The Department of State issues the visa bulletin every month to advise prospective immigrants about where they are “in the line” for green cards in any given category. The visa bulletin is broken down into two charts: the dates for filing chart and the final action dates chart.

The dates for filing chart tells us when an immigrant can submit her green card application and accompanying documents. The visa bulletin must list a date that is the same or later than the immigrant’s priority date for the immigrant to be eligible to submit her application. The final action dates chart tells us which immigrants are actually eligible to have their application adjudicated and/or be issued a green card. Again, the priority date has to be the same or later than the immigrant’s priority date.

Let’s illustrate with an example using the January 2024 visa bulletin. Mary was born in the Philippines. She is 30 years of age and unmarried. Her mother is a lawful permanent resident. Mary’s mother filed a family petition on Mary’s behalf on September 18, 2019. Therefore, Mary’s priority date is September 18, 2019. Because Mary is the adult unmarried child of a permanent resident, she is waiting in line in the family-based second preference category, or F2B.

As of January 2024, only adult unmarried children of permanent residents who were born in the Philippines can file for their green card if their priority date is August 1, 2004 or earlier. Also, the Department of State is only adjudicating applications for people whose priority date is October 3, 2003 or earlier.

Therefore, Mary needs to wait approximately 16 years before she will even be eligible to file her green card application with the Department of State.

Let’s also give an employment-based example. Justin Bieber, who was born in Canada, filed an employment-based petition as an international pop star and requested a green card under the employment-based first category. He filed on March 21, 2023.

Great news, Beliebers! According to the January 2024 dates for filing chart, Justin can file his application now because the Department of State is “current,” or up-to-date, with first-preference cases for people who were born anywhere other than China, India, Mexico or the Philippines. The Department of State is also current when it comes to adjudications.

An important note for our readers: the above dates for filing/final action dates explanation is applicable to cases for immigrants who are applying for their green cards abroad at a U.S. embassy or consulate. If the immigrant is already in the United States, she should look and see which chart U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is using each month so that she files her application at the appropriate time.

As always, we welcome your comments and will do our best to respond.

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