There are four family-based categories for many relatives, called “preferences,” and five based on employment. The number of green cards issued through each is limited by country of origin, but there is no cap for “immediate relatives” — spouses of U.S. citizens, U.S. citizens’ unmarried children under age 21 and parents of adult U.S. citizens over 21.
Immigrants and their lawyers track their “place in line” in the State Department’s monthly Visa Bulletin, which lists cut-off dates for each preference and country. For example, the February 2013 bulletin lists EB-1 “priority workers” — superstars in their fields, such as rock stars and neurosurgeons — as “current,” meaning they are likely to wait just the four to six months it takes to prepare visa paperwork and schedule a consular interview.
2. Anyone can get in line.
Most of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants would love to get in line if they could. They remain without papers because they don’t fit into any visa preference or because the wait is just too long. Without a relative to petition for them under a family-based preference or a job that fits into an employment-based category, there’s no line to enter.
Millions of low-wage service, industrial, manufacturing and construction jobs are filled by unauthorized workers who don’t qualify for visas because the Labor Department won’t certify a shortage of “U.S. workers” — citizens, green-card holders, refugees and others with work authorization — in those occupations. The department claims there are plenty of U.S. workers available, but talk to the owner of a landscaping company who spends thousands of dollars annually on lawyers to secure temporary H-2B visas for gardeners, and she’ll tell you that she can’t get American workers to apply for the jobs or stick with them. (One could argue that the prevailing wage for landscapers — roughly $12 per hour now in Central Texas — is the problem.)
3. Once you are in line, the wait is not too long.
In some visa categories, the wait can be decades. If the line is too long, would-be immigrants might break the law by, for example, sneaking over borders or overstaying student visas. People can’t be expected to wait decades for permission to work or live near their loved ones.
The Visa Bulletin provides a rough prediction of how long the wait will be in any given line. However, the fixed number of visas for each preference, plus increasing demand, ensure that the lines only get longer. For example, one family-based preference — for brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens — for immigrants from the Philippines is stuck at June 1, 1989. That means that a Filipino U.S. citizen trying to get her sister legal status would have had to file her petition on or before June 1, 1989, for the petition to be heard today. Based on monthly calculations of supply and demand, the visa office moves this cutoff date forward only a few days per month. The waiting period could be 30 years or more for these Filipino siblings.