When a person applies for permanent residency (green card), he or she is allotted a priority date, according to which his or her application will be processed by the USCIS. For the reasons below, this date is of utmost importance until applicants become eligible to receive their green cards. Individuals who intend to apply for a green card would do well to learn more about the priority date concept and under what circumstances the USCIS will allot green cards to immigrants.
Priority Date in the Green Card Application
According to the green card definition, the priority date is a date when an immigrant first declares his or her intention to seek immigration benefits in the United States. For the majority of green card categories, an immigrant, however, is unable to declare such intention directly. And it is his her family or employer sponsor makes such declaration through filing immigration petitions (e.g., I-130 or I-140) on behalf of the immigrant. The priority date is pretty much a date when such petition is submitted and is received by the USCIS, or shortly thereafter because the USCIS typically takes a few days to process the paperwork and enter appropriate registration dates into its system.
That was a technical definition of the term. Practically, however, the reason you care about the priority date is because it essentially serves as your spot on a prioritized waiting list for the USCIS.
Wait, What? The USCIS Wait List?
Yes, the USCIS does have a green card wait list. The U.S. immigration regulations state that no more than a certain number of green cards can be issued annually for certain immigrant categories. Such categories often are referred to as green card preferences: family and employment (see below). Then, the immigration regulations also say that no single country can get more than a certain number of green cards allocated under a specific preference; this number is typically 7%.
This rule applies regardless of a country's population. Thus, for citizens of some countries, whose population is small or whose citizens have not been seeking immigration benefits in the U.S. in the last few years, the wait list may be very short. When there is no waiting line exists in the green card process, the priority date is denoted as current. That individual typically can receives an immigrant visa number immediately, subject to delays related to basic green card process procedures.
However, for prospective immigrants coming from countries like India or China, whose populations are in excess of one billion, the story is much-much different. Because their countries' populations are so big, naturally the overall number of green card applicants is much larger. When the number of people who apply for a green card each year exceeds the amount of green cards allotted by the U.S. Department of State, a queue, backlog or wait list starts to accumulate. Each application is processed on the first come first serve basis. When the demand for green cards exceeds supply year after year, the backlog grows and an applicant must wait for years for his or her green card to be issued.
How Your Priority Date Determines Your Spot in the Queue?
Ok, so we established that for some green card categories and countries there is a long wait. So how do you know where in the queue your spot is. Unfortunately, this is not a very transparent process (like pretty much else in the green card process). To shed some light on it, the USCIS publishes monthly Visa Bulletin; here is the link is to the May 2016 Visa Bulletin. The Bulletin updates the Application Final Action Dates chart, which highlights the priority dates of those applications that are currently under review by the USCIS. If the dates listed for your particular green card category are current (designated as "C") or come after your assigned priority date, that means that your visa number has become available and you can apply for your green card. Please keep in mind that the wait line is not necessarily sequential; rather the published priority date marks the "batch" of the green card applications that are expected to be processed during the next month.
Difference Between Green Card Petition and Application
This is key to understanding why the priority date is important. If you recall, green card application process has two major components: petition and application. The immigrants get assigned their dates when their petition is filed by their family member or employer. People applying for a family-based green card have their family member file his or her petition on Form I-130, while people who apply for an employment-based visa have their petition filed on Form I-140. If the immigrant visa is available, then they can their green card application. Their application is also often called the adjustment of status application. Those folks for whom the question "how to immigrate to USA" is answered and who are given their priority dates are advised to pay close attention and verify the status of their priority dates relative to the published dates in Visa Bulletin. While there is no penalty for not applying when one's priority date becomes available or current, why wait any longer than you have to?
Green Card Preference
Recall that the USCIS uses countries of applicants' birth as a factor according to which it limits the number of immigrant visas available per year. We also discussed that there is a number of green card categories or preferences, which may receive a larger or smaller amount of available visas per year.
The two popular preference categories for green cards are:
Family Green Cards and Priority Date
The USCIS permits families to reunify through the current green card program. It allows for an unlimited number of immediate relatives or immediate family-based green cards each year (key word here is "immediate"). People who are eligible to apply for and receive immediate family-based green cards include:
There are other family preferences, which don't fall within a traditional "immediate family" definition, according to the USCIS. Examples include
While these family preferences still enjoy viable paths to permanent residency, the green card process typically involves a wait of several years. For example, in May 2016, the USCIS was reviewing F4 applications with the priority dates of July 2003, which translates into a wait time of at least thirteen (13!) years.
Employment-Based Green Cards and Priority Date
The USCIS also dispenses 140,000 employment-based green cards each year. These visas are given to people who intend to come to the U.S. to work for a U.S.-based organization, which may include corporation, academic or non-profit institution. These institutions, in most cases, have to sponsor the green card applicant. Because no one country can receive more than 7% allocation of employment-based green cards, only approximately 10,000 applicants from any one particular country can be granted green cards under the employment preference.
Like with family preferences, there are several categories for employment green cards, according to this green card definition:
The preferred categories, such as EB1 and EB2, have current priority dates and tend to have no wait. These categories receive priority treatment because the U.S. government encourages the people who qualify come to the United States and stay. However, other categories of the employment-based green cards have substantial wait times. For example, in May 2016, EB3 preference priority date was mid-February 2016, which means that the average wait time in the queue is just about 3-4 months. However, for China's citizen EB3 priority date was August 2013, implying that the wait time is at least three years. For India's citizens, the EB3 priority date was September 2014, implying the wait time of at least twelve (12!) years.
This is a phenomenon that happen from time to time, which creates some waves among unhappy green card applicants. (Here is an example of some immigrants suing the US government for immigration benefits because of this visa retrogression effect.) The visa retrogression takes place when priority date goes backward, as opposed to forward in the USCIS review queue. For example, in a Month 1, the USCIS publishes in the Visa Bulletin a processing priority date of May 2013; and in Month 2, the USCIS publishes the processing priority date of November 2012. You see how the priority dates went back by about half a year? That's the retrogression. It happens more often to the lower preferences green card categories because it is primarily driven by volatility in applications for higher preferences green cards. Recall, higher preference - higher priority and shorter wait time.
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