Something a little different, but if you’re advising a client who is waiting in line for an employment-based or family-based immigrant visa (e.g., basically, a Green Card), it’s critical that you know what the Visa Bulletin is, and how to use it.
So what’s the Visa Bulletin? The Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) creates annual limits on the number of immigrant visas that the U.S. Department of State (“DOS”) may issue to applicants worldwide in each government fiscal year. For family-based immigrant petitions, the limit is 226,000 immigrant visas per year. For employment-based immigrant petitions, the limit is 140,000 immigrant visas per year.
The INA has also established an “immigrant numerical allotment and control system” which, as the phrase suggests, controls how these annual immigrant visas are allocated within the groups referenced above.
The immigrant numerical allotment control system is administered by the DOS, and specifically the DOS’s Visa Office. Each month, the DOS publishes the Visa Bulletin, which summarizes the availability of immigrant visas as allocated among the various family- and employment-based immigrant “preference” categories in light of the numerical limitations noted above. Every month, the Visa Office determines the number of immigrant visas used thus far in the fiscal year, and then estimates future use and demand. In doing so, it is able to report which categories are “current” (i.e., immigrant visas are available), and which categories are “oversubscribed” (i.e., there is a backlog).
By reviewing the Visa Bulletin, you can (very) generally advise your client when he or she may be able to apply for an immigrant visa (if they are currently outside the United States) or for their Green Card (if they are currently inside the United States) in light of what your client’s “priority date” is.
Recently, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”), in coordination with the DOS, reported that they were revising the procedures for determining immigrant visa availability for applicants who were in “oversubscribed” family- and employment-based preference categories. As reported, the revised process is intended to enhance DOS’s ability to more accurately predict overall immigrant visa demand and determine the cut-off dates for immigrant visa issuance published in the Visa Bulletin. This was really good news.
In reporting this good news, the DOS revised the Visa Bulletin to now include “Application Final Action Dates”, which are the dates when immigrant visas may finally be issued, and “Dates for Filing Applications”, which are the earliest dates when applicants may be able to apply for their immigrant visas (or their Green Cards, if they are presently in the United States).
Under this new process, if an intending immigrant is presently in the United States, and has a “priority date” earlier than the listed “filing date” for their particular immigrant visa category in the Visa Bulletin, they will now be able to file their applications for their Green Card earlier than they would have been allowed under the old process. (However, they still have to wait for the “final action” date to become current before their permanent residence can be approved.)
For those intending immigrants who are in the United States and are stuck in a category that is substantially oversubscribed, this means they will be able to receive employment authorization and travel documents earlier than they would have under the old system (still while they await final action on their cases). Again, this is a really big deal (in a time when comprehensive immigration reform has been stymied at every turn).
Our country still needs comprehensive immigration reform. Without it, however, I suppose we’ll have satisfy ourselves for the time being with these regulatory “baby steps.”
 There is actually a third category, for what are referred to as “Diversity” immigrants, and the annual limit in this category is 55,000 immigrant visas year.
 A priority date is generally the date when the applicant’s relative or employer properly filed the immigrant visa petition on the applicant’s behalf with USCIS. If a labor certification is required to be filed with the applicant’s immigrant visa petition, then the priority date is when the labor certification application was accepted for processing by the U.S. Department of Labor.