Are we THERE yet? The Mysteries of the Visa Bulletin.

June 7, 2011

Hourglass.jpg ** You are a US citizen, and you have petitioned your brother from China.

** You are a US legal permanent resident, and you have petitioned your adult, unmarried daughter from Egypt.

** You are a US citizen, and you have petitioned your married son from Argentina.

"When is my relative going to be able to immigrate to the USA. Why do we have to wait so long? I know my relative's priority date, but the dates on the Visa Bulletin swing backwards and forwards. It makes no sense!"

Strangely enough, this is one of the MOST DIFFICULT things to ask an immigration lawyer. The immigration attorneys at the Law Offices of J Craig Fong in Los Angeles have decades of experience with the immigration system, and we still find it difficult to estimate the progress of the Visa Bulletin. We tell the client to look at the Visa Bulletin, to see which dates are being processed currently. The client calls us back and says, "the Visa Bulletin says that people in my relative's category who applied in 2003 are being processed now! Does that mean my relative must wait another eight years? (Assume we are in the year 2011.) Well, maybe, and maybe not.

The movement of priority dates on the Visa Bulletin is vastly and famously difficult to predict.  That is because guessing is difficult due to (a) the total number of visas available, (b) the number of visas permitted to each country of the world,  (c) the number of visas taken up by each petition, and (d) the time of year.

There are some technical, extremely detailed explanations about how the Visa Bulletin works. If you would like to read one -- and if you think it will help -- click here. I have read a number of these explanations, and to be honest, after 30 years of practicing law, the system is as opaque as ever. In practice, this is the way I explain the movement of priority dates when my clients ask me:

First, the US Congress has limited the maximum number of family-based immigrant visas (green cards) that can be granted each year to 480,000.  (There are exceptions to this, but they are not relevant to this discussion.) Of the 480,000, maximums are set for the visas available in each family-based category: son or daughter of a US citizen, spouse or minor child of a legal permanent resident, unmarried son or daughter of a legal permanent resident, married son or daughter of a US citizen, and sibling of a US citizen.

Why 480,000? It is a figure set by Congressional act and is based, at least in part, on the Congressional judgment of the number of immigrants that the USA can reasonably absorb in any one year.

Further: nationals of any one country of the world may not receive more than a maximum of 25,000 annually.  This does not mean that all 25,000 will be given out for each country, but it sets the maximum.

Why 25,000? Again, this number is set by Congress, and it reflects the desire not to have too many immigrants from any one single country arrive in one year, creating an unbalanced demographic picture.

This means that a low-demand country, say, Monaco or Vanuatu, would probably not use up its allotment of 25,000, across all the family-based visa categories.  However, a high-demand country, say, China or the Philippines, would have more than 25,000 people who want to immigrate to the USA in any given year.  However, even if Monaco does not use up its 25,000 visa allotment, China does not get to have more than the maximum 25,000 visas as a result!

Second, each petition can account for more than one beneficiary.  For example, let's pretend that Mr. Smith, from the United Kingdom, is married with two minor children. Mr. Smith's brother is an American citizen, and Brother files an I-130 Family Petition for Mr. Smith. So: when Mr. Smith immigrates, the one petition will end up using up four green cards: one for Mr. Smith, one for Mr. Smith's wife, and two for each of Mr. Smith's minor children.  

US immigration counts petitions not beneficiaries. This makes estimates VERY difficult.

Third, the US fiscal year begins on 1 October.  It is on this date that the "new" batch of 480,000 green cards (immigrant visas) hits the system.  This means that ANY of the unused visas for the fiscal year that just ended die -- although there are RARELY any of the 480,000 visas which go unused, given the high demand.  The new fiscal year means a brand-new start with 480,000 family-based visas.

As a practical matter, this means that US consulates begin processing many, many green cards at the beginning of the fiscal year -- October, November, December, and January.  When this happens, the priority dates begin to move rapidly.  People look on the monthly Visa Bulletin issued by the Department of State, and they see the priority dates moving like lightning.  People say to themselves, "My god: the priority date is jumping 8-9 months every calendar month!  I will get to immigrate soon!!!"

Then in February, March, and April, as the fiscal year moves on, the movement in the processing dates begins to slow to a crawl, because consular officers get cautious about processing people when there may not be enough visas to last until 30 September, to the end of the fiscal year.  Finally, in July, August, and September, the numbers stop advancing and SOMETIMES they retrogress.

My advice to any one who is waiting for the arrival of a priority date: regularly watch the State Department's  Visa Bulletin, which comes out on the 15th of each calendar month.  This will provide you with a better idea of how the priority date is advancing. --jcf