The federal government began its new fiscal year on October 1, 2012. This transition, both of new month and new year, has implications for a large portion of the family-based immigration system known as the Family Preference System. As we detail below, the new fiscal year opened on a disappointing note for many families hoping to be reunited with loved ones abroad such as spouses (2 years, 4 months of waiting for most countries), adult children (7 to 20 years delay depending on the country and other factors), or siblings (after 12 years for most of the world, 16.5 years for Mexico, and almost 24 years for the Philippines.)
If you are baffled by these absurd wait times you are not alone. We’ll try to explain these phenomena:
Applicants for family-based immigrant visas are broken up into two main categories: Immediate Relatives and Preference Immigrants. Immediate Relatives (IRs for short) are the parents, spouses, and unmarried children under 21 years of age of U.S. citizens (native-born or naturalized). IRs do not have to wait for a visa once they are petitioned for — as soon as the family relationship exists and is verified they can begin the process of applying for an immigrant visa. (Note: IRs are still subject to the grounds of inadmissibility, deportability, and other possible roadblocks. The difference is that they do not have to wait to find out about these problems).
By contrast Preference Immigrants are categorized into different groups such as F-1 (unmarried adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens), F-2A (spouses and unmarried children of Permanent Residents), F-2B (unmarried adult sons and daughters of Permanent Residents), F-3 (married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens), and F-4 (siblings of U.S. citizens). The good thing about being a Preference Immigrant is that you and your children and spouse (usually) can all be included under one visa and when your time comes your “derivative” relatives are eligible too. The bad thing is that the waiting times can be brutal.
Preference Immigrants are subject to annual caps on each of the above five types of visas which total 226,000 per year. Further, each country may have no more than 7 percent of the visas in a given category in a given year. As an example 65,000 of the total worldwide principal visas are allocated for the F-4 category, and no more than 4,550 of these visas may go to natives of the Philippines. Because there are many people in the United States who are of Filipino descent there are more than 4,550 F-4 petitions filed each year. As a result the leftover applications from one year automatically roll over into the next year and take up that year’s allocation of 4,550 visas. Over time we end up with one year’s applicants “cannibalizing” the visas for the next year or two and the line grows and grows and grows.
To illustrate this we look at the F-4 category for the Philippines in the Visa Bulletin for October 2012: for this month the Department of State (which controls the release of visas) is only processing visa requests made on or before February 8, 1989. That’s where we get the 24-year figure (difference between today’s date and the date currently eligible for a visa.) You can explore the rest of the Visa Bulletin to see how backlogged many other categories are.
The Department of State does its best to monitor supply and demand for immigrant visas and to predict which dates should be available for which categories. Sometimes (as in winter 2010-2011) it gets the dates wrong and the available dates jump backward after a few overly optimistic months, and the start of the new fiscal year is a time to recalibrate the system for the new year. A large portion of the immigrant community is watching anxiously for the F-4 category to creep beyond April 30, 2001 because many petitions were filed around this date to take advantage of a law known as Section 245(i). For these and many other families the slow progression of the dates in the Visa Bulletin is another reminder of how patient they must be in order to obtain the desired result from our outdated, confusing, and sometimes broken immigration system. We continue to watch optimistically for signs that our elected officials can find common ground and make some needed changes to this and other aspects of our immigration laws.