Please Proceed to the Back of the Line, Your Estimated Wait Time is 23 Years

By: Danielle Huntley, Esq.  

I have heard many times from folks on the left and the right that foreigners who wish to immigrate to the U.S. should ideally wait in line for a visa or a green card. I have also heard that illegal aliens should go to the back of the line if they are granted some type of amnesty. But, when pressed, very few can articulate what exactly the line is and who waits in it. Here I am hoping to help, by explaining the mythical line in layman’s terms.


First, some initial definitions are important. All foreigners who come to the U.S. on a visa are divided into one of two categories: immigrants and non-immigrants. An immigrant holds the immigrant visa or, as it is commonly known, the green card. They are legal permanent residents of the U.S. Non-immigrants hold non-immigrant temporary visas like tourist visas, work visas and student visas.


With that out of the way, back to my original question –what exactly is the line and who waits in it?


The line refers to foreigners waiting for the green card. While there are restrictions on certain types of non-immigrant visas they are better understood as quotas, rather than a line.


An immigrant’s place in line for a green card is determined by the date an immigrant petition is filed on their behalf by either a family member, an employer or, in limited instances, for themselves.  The date the petition is filed gives the immigrant their priority date which controls their place in the line.


The line is controlled by the Visa Bulletin put out monthly by the State Department.  Here’s where one of the biggest misconceptions about the line falls apart– there is not a singular line. There are at least 65 different lines for different categories of immigrants.


Each category of immigrant listed in the Visa Bulletin has a cutoff date, which means that USCIS is issuing green cards for immigrant petitions filed in that category before that date. If the Visa Bulletin’s cutoff date in a category is January 1, 2005 then all immigrants in that category with a priority date before January 1, 2005 can be issued green cards.


These lines move at vastly different paces. For some immigrants their time in line lasts as long as it takes USCIS to process the petition, for others the wait can be decades long.


Who has the longest wait for family based petitions? According to the October 2012 Visa Bulletin immigrants in these four categories have the longest wait times:


  1. Siblings of U.S. Citizens from the Philippines have the longest wait, a whopping 23 years long.  Their cutoff date is February 8, 1989. (I was in preschool when these petitions were filed).
  2. Married children of U.S. Citizens from the Philippines come in at second place with just more than a 20 year wait. Their cutoff date is July 22, 1992.
  3. Unmarried children of Permanent Residents who are 21 years of age or older from Mexico come in at third place with just under a 20 year wait. Their cutoff date is October 1, 1992.
  4. Married Children of U.S. Citizens from Mexico come in at fourth place with a 19 year wait. Their cutoff date is February 8, 1993.

The wait times calculated above are just estimates. The line does not necessarily advance a month with each monthly bulletin. This highlights how unpredictable and complicated our system is. If comprehensive immigration reform does come to fruition and some type of amnesty is granted, should illegal aliens be able to jump ahead of individuals who have been waiting to immigrate legally to the U.S. for years? If they are to go to the back of the line, which line should they go to the back of? If the wait is decades long is that workable?


In the coming weeks I plan on posting more details on how the Visa Bulletin works and how immigrants are categorized.