Going to the Back of the Line: A Primer on Lines, Visa Categories and Wait Times

Claire Bergeron
Date of Publication: 
March, 2013
Source Organization: 
Migration Policy Institute

The concept of an immigration "line" has been a contentious point in the immigration reform debate. This brief, "Going to the Back of the Line:  A Primer on Lines, Visa Categories and Wait Times," examines the family- and employment-based immigration channels to dispel the myth of a single immigration line. The author outlines the current visa categories for family and employment and their annual caps and describes the two-step application and approval processes for legal permanent residence (LPR). Of the 4.4 million pending LPR cases (people whose petitions have already been approved but who have yet to receive visas), 97 percent were applicants for family-based visas. A handful of countries account for the majority of applications and these countries, the findings show, have extremely long wait times that may exceed 20 years in the cases of Mexico and the Philippines. Because U.S. law allows around 226,000 green cards annually for immigrants filing through one of several family-based preference categories, the report conservatively concludes that it would take 19 years at the current rate of approval to clear the existing backlogs in the family-based preference categories.

No one knows how many undocumented immigrants may already be waiting on one of these lines. However, U.S. law may bar them from permanent residence by virtue of their unlawful presence in the country. Thus, the concept of a line that undocumented immigrants can join for an easy journey toward citizenship is shown to be far from simple. Indeed, as the author concludes, any legalization program that requires applicants to "go to the back of the line" will be meaningless unless additional visas are made available. And under current law, if you don't have a close family connection in the U.S., there may be no line at all.

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Bergeron, C. "Going to the Back of the Line:  A Primer on Lines, Visa Categories and Wait Times." Migration Policy Institute Policy Brief No. 1, March 2013. Retrieved from https://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/CIRbrief-BackofLine.pdf