Hard Line on Immigrants

How long is the queue for green cards?

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Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff met with Republican and Democratic senators on Wednesday, in an effort to revive a proposed overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. Back in May, Chertoff took pains to note that under the new law, illegal immigrants wouldn’t be able to skip the line for obtaining green cards. Opponents have argued the opposite, saying that illegal immigrants would indeed get to jump to the front of the line. Just how long is the green card line, anyway?

It depends on whom you know. The spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens skip the line altogether and get to apply for their green cards right away. (It can still take months or years for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to process these applications.) Most other would-be immigrants must wait on one of two lines to get their visas for permanent residence. Those who secure sponsorship from an employer get on the faster track. This one favors the people at the top of their field—like top scientists and athletes—while less illustrious folks can wait for years. Those stuck on the much slower family line—which includes relatives not mentioned above, like siblings—must wait at least six years before they reach the front; some people have been queued up for more than two decades. (Refugees and asylum-seekers move in their own line, with the president deciding how many to accept from regions around the world.)

Some immigration lawyers estimate that at least 4 million people here and overseas are now waiting in one of these lines for an immigrant visa. To get a spot, a sponsor needs to file a petition. Family-based and employer-based applications take different paths, but the waiting generally begins when that first petition is approved. Aspirants who make it to the front of a line aren’t even given a visa right away. They’re technically waiting for the government to make available a “visa number,” which can then be used down the road to secure approval for a green card.

Your rate of progress in a given line depends on many factors. Some applicants have higher priority than others, even in the family line: The unmarried children of citizens tend to have the shortest waits, while the adult siblings of citizens come last. Diversity also helps, since immigrants from no one country can take more than 7 percent of the available visas. That means that people from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines have an extra long wait, because so many of their countrymen have already gone through the system. In general, Filipinos endure the longest lines; the USCIS is now processing cases for married Filipino children of U.S. citizens who applied back in January 1985.

Starting in 1994, there was another way to skip the line: The Diversity Lottery, a program designed to favor regions like Africa and Europe, which have fewer green card seekers. Last year 5.5 million people tried their luck for about 50,000 green cards.

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Explainer thanks Ben Johnson of the American Immigration Law Foundation and Sheela Murthy of the Murthy Law Firm.