Priority Dates and Visa Quota Backlogs (or “Retrogression”)
U.S. immigration laws set limits on how many immigrant visas may be issued each Fiscal Year (FY) (October 1 through September 30) in all visa categories. For employment based cases, nationals of each country may obtain immigrant visas (i.e., a green card), in different preference categories (e.g., EB-1, EB-2, EB-3). For each category, the law restricts the number of green cards such that no one country may have more than a specific percentage of the total number of visas available per year. There is a similar per-country limit for family-based immigrant visas. Once a per-country limit is reached in a particular category, a waiting list is created and applicants are placed on the list based on the date their application was filed. So, when an employment-based petition is filed, the filing date is called a “priority date,” which determines where the person is in the “queue” or waiting list.
In determining visa availability (known as visa “chargeability”) per country for the waiting line, it is based on the individual’s country of birth and not country of citizenship.
The Importance of a Priority Date
In order for USCIS to approve an immigrant visa, the priority date must be “current.” A priority date is current if there is no backlog in the category, or if the priority date is on or before the cut-off date listed in the State Department’s current monthly Visa Bulletin. This Bulletin is usually released around the 15th of each month. The priority dates in each category and for each country can change each month moving backwards and forward, but can also remain the same. The dates can also move very slowly (or not at all) or move forward by months or years. It is virtually impossible to predict what a priority date will be in a future month or when a category will become current.
The Difference Between “U” (Unavailable), a Specific Date (MM/DD/YY) and “C” (Current) in the Visa Bulletin
If the Visa Bulletin indicates “U”, which stands for “Unavailable”, it means that there are no more visas available for that particular category as of the month shown.
If the Visa Bulletin lists a specific date (i.e. 07/07/08), it is considered to be the cut-off date, and that means that there is a “quota backlog”. Only applicants with a priority date earlier than the cut-off date may move forward with the process, usually the I-485 adjustment of status application or the immigrant visa application. For example, if the Visa Bulletin lists 07/07/08, an applicant with a priority date of 07/06/08 or earlier can move forward with their green card process. But, an applicant with a priority date of 07/07/08 or later must wait.
If the Visa Bulletin indicates “C”, which stands for “Current”, it means that there is no quota backlog in this category and all applicants can move forward with the process, usually the I-485 application or the immigrant visa application.