Federal immigration law allows U.S. employers to petition for an immigrant visa for a current or prospective employee, and citizens or lawful permanent residents may do so for a family member. The length of time it takes for the government to approve an immigrant visa petition mainly depends on two factors: the type of visa sought and the prospective immigrant’s country of origin. Most family- and employment-based visas are subject to annual numerical limitations. Federal law also imposes an annual cap on the number of numerically limited visas available to citizens of any one country. A bill currently pending in the U.S. Congress, H.R. 213, or the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2015, would eliminate or increase the limits placed on each country. The bill likely has little to no chance of passing during the current Congressional session, but it offers a useful look at this particular system of numerical caps.
Some prospective immigrants are not subject to any numerical limitation, such as “immediate relatives” of U.S. citizens. 8 U.S.C. § 1151(b). All other prospective immigrants are subject to annual caps of up to 480,000 family-based and 140,000 employment-based immigrants. Id. at §§ 1151(c), (d). These immigrants are assigned to employment- and family-based immigrant visa categories, based on either the type of job involved or the petitioner’s own status and the immigrant’s relationship to the petitioner. 8 U.S.C. § 1153. In addition to these annual caps, the total number of visas given to citizens or nationals of any one country in a fiscal year cannot exceed seven percent of the total number of authorized visas. 8 U.S.C. § 1152(a)(2). For dependencies of a foreign country, the limit is two percent. Id.
This per-country numerical limit largely affects nationals of some countries more than others. The monthly Visa Bulletin issued by the U.S. Department of State, which indicates how long beneficiaries of each type of immigrant visas petition may expect to wait, illustrates the disparate impact on countries with a high volume of petitions. The Visa Bulletin shows the priority dates for each immigrant visa category that are currently being processed by the government. A petition’s “priority date” is roughly equivalent to its filing date. The Visa Bulletin further distinguishes between petitions received from China, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and all other countries. According to the August 2016 Visa Bulletin, the current priority date for the “F1” family visa category for most countries is May 22, 2009, a waiting period of just over seven years. For the Philippines, however, the priority date is March 22, 2005. For Mexico, it is March 8, 1995.