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The ABCs of Immigration – Understanding the State Department Visa Bulletin
by Greg Siskind and Amy Ballentine

The United States Department of State, through the Bureau of Consular Affairs, publishes the monthly "Visa Bulletin." The Visa Bulletin lists the availability of "immigrant numbers" during the month of publication, and is intended as a guide for consular officials, attorneys and others who would like to know if visas are immediately available for individuals in particular categories. We make the Visa Bulletin available on our website as soon as we have the information, and include it in the next issue of our newsletter. It is also available from several other sources, include the State Department’s website.

Section 201 of the Immigration and Nationality Act establishes limits on family and employment based immigration. There is no limit on the number of spouses and minor children of US citizens, but there is an annual limit on the other categories of family based immigrants of just under 500,000. The limit for employment-based immigration is 140,000. Section 202 of the Immigration and Nationality Act states that the total number of visas that may be issued ("charged") to specific countries may not exceed seven percent of the total number of family or employment based immigration on a worldwide basis. It is this limit on the number of visas that may be received by a country’s nationals that creates the backlogs for some countries.

The Visa Bulletin indicates the availability of visas for family and employment-based preference categories, and separately lists countries that may have exceeded their allocation of visas. Countries that have exceeded their allocation of visas are “oversubscribed” and individuals from those countries must wait before a visa can be issued.

If a Category is "Current" then visas are immediately available for issuance by the consulate, and tables on the Visa Bulletin indicate this fact with a "C" under the appropriate chargeability area. If a category is oversubscribed, tables on the Visa Bulletin indicate this fact with a date, such as 15MAR94 under the appropriate chargeability area. When a category is oversubscribed, only individuals with a “priority date” earlier than the one listed on the Visa Bulletin may be issued visas. The priority date is the date on which the INS received the application, either an I-130 application for an alien relative or an I-140 application for an immigrant worker.

A priority date is assigned when an individual, who is qualified for the category of immigration they request, files a complete application. Individuals whose priority date is after the one listed in the tables must wait until their priority date is included in a table published in the monthly Visa Bulletin. Contrary to what one might believe, priority dates do not necessarily advance one month at a time, and depend upon the number of applications filed around the time of an individual’s application. A surge in applications for a particular chargeability area at the time of filing could lead to priority dates advancing only one week per month. Similarly, a sharp drop in applications for a particular chargeability area when the application was filed might result in priority dates that advance two months at a time.

Family based immigration is divided into four preference categories and "immediate relatives" of United States citizens. Immediate relatives of United States citizens are parents, children under 21 and spouses. This category is not subject to any limits, and visas are always immediately available to those within it. The first family preference is for unmarried (whether single, widowed, or divorced) children over 21 of United States citizens and is presently backlogged more than 18 months for all countries. Backlogs for Mexico and the Philippines are particularly long (just over 6 years and just over 12 years). The family 2A preference is for spouses and unmarried children under 21 of permanent residents, and presently has a backlog of about four years. The family 2B preference is for unmarried children over 21 of permanent residents, and presently has about a seven-year backlog. The third family preference is for married children (any age) of United States citizens and currently faces about a four-year backlog for most countries, again with longer backlogs for Mexico and the Philippines. The fourth and final family preference is for brothers and sisters of United States citizens (over 21), and currently has about an eleven-year backlog for all countries, except the Philippines, which faces a wait of over 21 years.

Employment based immigration is divided into five preference categories. The first preference category is for “priority workers” such as outstanding professors and researchers, aliens of extraordinary ability and multinational executives and managers. This category is presently current for all countries. The second preference category is for members of the professions holding advanced (post graduate) degrees, aliens of exceptional ability, and others whose immigration is in the “national interest.” This category is presently current for all countries except China and India (China is backlogged about 18 months and India about nine months). The third preference covers skilled workers, professionals and other workers. Within this category, skilled workers and professionals are presently current for most countries, except China and India (two and one-half years and three and one-half years respectively). However, the category of "other workers" faces a backlog of about five years for all countries. The fourth preference is for "special immigrants" and includes certain US Government employees, religious workers, foreign medical graduates, employees of international organizations, juveniles, members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and limited number of other individuals. This category is presently current for all countries. The fifth and final preference category is for “entrepreneurs,” commonly known as immigrant investor visas. The investment typically required is $1,000,000, and requires the creation of at least ten new full-time jobs in the U.S. for individuals other than the investor's spouse or children. This category is presently current for all countries.

About The Authors

Gregory Siskind has experience handling all aspects of immigration and nationality law and has represented numerous clients throughout the world. Mr. Siskind provides consultations to corporations and individuals on immigration law issues and handles cases before the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department of State, the Department of Labor and other government agencies. Gregory Siskind is also committed to community service. He regularly provides free legal services to indigent immigration clients and speaks at community forums to offer information on immigration issues. After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, Gregory Siskind went on to receive his law degree from the University of Chicago. For the past several years, he has been an active member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and he currently serves as a member of the organization's Technology Committee. He is the current committee chair for the Nashville Bar Association's International Section. Greg is a member of the American Bar Association where he serves on the LPM Publishing Board as Marketing Vice Chairman and on the Council of the Law Practice Management Section. He is also a member of the Tennessee Bar Association, the Nashville Bar Association and the Memphis Bar Association. He serves on the board of the British American Business Association of Tennessee. And he serves on the Board of Directors of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and on the executive boards of the Jewish Family Service agencies in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. He recently was named one of the Top 40 executives under age 40 in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

Greg regularly writes on the subject of immigration law. He has written several hundred articles on the subject and is also the author of the new book The J Visa Guidebook, published by Matthew Bender and Company, one of the nation's leading legal publishers. He is working on another book for Matthew Bender on entertainment and sports immigration.

Greg is also, in many ways, a pioneer in the use of the Internet in the legal profession. He was one of the first lawyers in the country (and the very first immigration lawyer) to set up a web site for his practice. And he was the first attorney in the world to distribute a firm newsletter via e-mail listserv. Mr. Siskind is the author of the American Bar Association's best selling book, The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. He has been interviewed and profiled in a number of leading publications and media including USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Lawyers Weekly, the ABA Journal, the National Law Journal, American Lawyer, Law Practice Management Magazine, National Public Radio's All Things Considered and the Washington Post. As one of the leading experts in the country on the use of the Internet in a legal practice, Greg speaks regularly at forums across the United States, Canada and Europe.

In his personal life, Greg is the husband of Audrey Siskind and the proud father of Eden Shoshana and Lily Jordana. He also enjoys collecting rare newspapers and running in marathons and triathlons. He can be reached by email at

Amy Ballentine is an associate in Siskind, Susser & Haas's Memphis, Tennessee office. She graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from Rhodes College in 1994. While in law school at the University of Memphis she was a member of the law review staff as well as a published author. She also worked with the local public defender’s office in death penalty cases. In May 1999, she graduated Cum Laude from the University of Memphis Law School. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She can be reached by email at

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