While employment-based green card applicants are seeing unprecedented backlogs in their priority dates, notably in the EB-1 category reserved for “priority workers”, family-sponsored green card applicants are seeing their priority dates advance at a pace not seen in the last few years.

This development is happening almost unnoticed in the shadow of the media’s focus on the southern border and other aspects of preference-based immigration such as the administration’s proposal for a point-based system and a proposal in Congress to eliminate per-country limitations for employment-based green cards.

What are priority dates?

 A “priority date” is, essentially, an individual’s “place in line” to apply for a green card. An individual can determine how close they are to the front of the line by comparing their priority date to the dates for their category and country listed in the visa bulletin. Additional information about visa availability and priority dates can be found on the USCIS website. In general, for family-sponsored categories, the wait to apply for a green card ranges from a few years to over twenty years.

 Who is eligible for a green card under the family-sponsored eligibility categories?

 Each year, the number of family-sponsored immigrant visas is subject to a quota of between 226,000 and 480,000 as determined by a calculation based on the prior year’s family-based immigration statistics.  Immediate relatives (spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of US Citizens) are exempt from this quota. The annual quota is divided across five categories of eligible family-sponsored individuals: (F1) unmarried adult sons and daughters of US citizens, (F2A) spouses and children of permanent residents, (F2B) unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age or older) of permanent residents, (F3) married sons and daughters of US citizens, and (F4) brothers and sisters of adult US citizens.

Why are the advances in the family-sponsored categories significant?

 Historically, family-based categories other than immediate relatives have seen multi-year long backlogs that advance by just a few weeks with each new visa bulletin and often stall during the summer. Not this year. For the past year, most family-sponsored categories have been advancing by several weeks or months with each new visa bulletin. This culminated with the F2A category becoming “current” (available) on July 1, 2019 for all individuals.

These advances are significant because it means that family-sponsored applicants now have shorter wait times to apply for their green cards. This is even more significant for individuals who are seeking a green card under the F2A category because they are now able to pursue a green card application without delay, similar to spouses, unmarried minor children, and parents of adult US Citizens.

What does this mean for applicants waiting for employment-based green cards?

Unfortunately, nothing. Theoretically, if overall demand for family-based green cards across all categories is lower than the overall quota for family-based visas, unused visas could be reallocated to employment-based categories. However, in reality, even when one family-based category is current, demand in other family-based categories will absorb the remaining visas, with none flowing over to employment-based categories.

 Why are priority dates for family-sponsored categories advancing faster than for employment-based categories?

The advancement of priority dates and related availability of visas is determined by Department of State officials who compare the supply of visas available for the fiscal year to demand for visas in specific categories. Priority dates are “current” when the authorities expect actual demand will be lower than supply. As an example, according to the notes for the July 2019 Visa Bulletin, for the F2A category, “[d]espite the large amount of registered F2A demand, currently there are not enough applicants who are actively pursuing final action on their case to fully utilize all of the available numbers under the annual limit.” In other words, while there are many people who have taken the preliminary steps to get a green card by filing petitions, for some reason, they aren’t actually taking the final steps to apply for green cards.

One can only speculate as to what is causing this low level of demand. Can it be that individuals are simply giving up on applying for green cards through family ties due to the previously lengthy wait periods? Are individuals finding other ways of immigrating to the United States? Is the United States increasingly less attractive compared to other developed nations? Are individuals perhaps now “immediate relatives” of newly naturalized US Citizens? Whatever the case may be, this is good news for all individuals who have been and continue to patiently wait to apply for a green card based on their family ties.

It is important to note that should the Department of State see a change in this trend and see demand start to increase across family-based categories, the advances that we have seen in the last year could “retrogress” quickly and at any time.

Bottom line: If you are eligible to file a family-sponsored green card application, specifically under the F2B category, now is the time to seek advice from a qualified immigration practitioner regarding your options.