That Feeling of Being # 755,632 in Line for a U.S. Green Card

immigrant-children-ellis-islandOne of the least well understood aspects of U.S. immigration law is the visa “preference” system. The underlying issue is easy to understand: In certain categories where a family and employment relationship qualifies a non-citizen for a green card, the number of green cards (“immigrant visas”) that can actually given out per year is capped by law.

For example, only 23,000 visas are available annually to the unmarried sons or daughters of a U.S. citizen who are over age 21, only about 114,200 to the spouses and unmarried children of U.S. permanent residents (green card holders), and so on. The trouble, of course, is that many more people qualify for, and want, U.S. green cards than there are visas available. There’s always a waiting list, and it’s getting longer every year.

That’s where it gets difficult. Just how long the waiting list is getting is usually obscured by the way the U.S. government manages it. Instead of handing out numbers like my local U.S. Post Office does, it gives everyone a “Priority Date,” based on the exact day when their U.S. family-member or employer (called the “petitioner”) sent in the visa petition that starts off the application process.

Waiting would-be immigrants learn to check the State Department’s Visa Bulletin to see whether their Priority Date has appeared on the list yet. Only when they see it there can they move forward with applying for a visa — and until their date comes up, it’s difficult to guess how long the wait will be.

That’s why it’s so eye-opening to see actual numbers of how many people are in line. And the U.S. State Department just published these numbers for last year. If you’re over 21 and waiting for a visa through your U.S. citizen parent, guess what: 314,527 other people are waiting for the exact same thing. Hopefully your petitioner didn’t apply for you last week.

But you might feel better when you hear how many people are waiting for one of the 65,000 visas available annually to brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. The total has reached 2,455,964. Some people in that category have been waiting for a visa since 1991. Unless, of course, you’ve also got a family member who’s in that category, still waiting. It sort of makes a hash of the “family reunification” that’s supposed to be the underlying principle at work here.