As you begin the immigration process, the USCIS will send you a Notice of Action—Form I-797. This form indicates that the USCIS has received or approved a petition or form filed on your behalf. If you are seeking immigration through your employment or certain family members, your Form I-797 will show a priority date on the second line of the form.
By law, the United States can only grant a certain number of immigrant visas for each fiscal year. The yearly employment-based visa total is currently 140,000, although this can be adjusted for unused visa slots from the prior year. The employment-based visa total is divided into several categories of preference as well as by countries of origin, each receiving a percentage of visas to be granted that year.
When one of these categories has more applicants than available visas, the applicants must form a visa queue. The priority date marks your place in that queue. It indicates the day on which your labor certification application or petition was accepted for processing. According to the Department of State (DOS), the priority date determines your “turn” to apply for an immigrant visa.
How Do You Use Your Priority Date?
The DOS publishes a Visa Bulletin online. Every month, the Visa Bulletin shows two charts for each sponsorship category of immigration visa. Here is a partial example of a recent chart from the Bulletin:
(This excerpt is provided as a sample illustration only and is not to be consulted for accuracy. It does not show every employment preference category that appears in a typical chart.)
The first column lists preference categories for employment visas. To consult this chart, you would find your own preference category, then check the second column. “Chargeability” refers to your country of origin as determined by US law for immigration purposes. If yours is one of the countries or regions listed to the right, you would consult that column; otherwise, you would consult the second.
The letter “C” indicates that the visa category in that row and column is current—that is, there is no visa queue to wait in, and applications may be filed now. But if there is a date, then there is a queue, and you must consult your priority date from your I-797. If your priority date is earlier than the date listed for your category and chargeability area, you are eligible to make a filing.
However, there are two charts of this type in the bulletin, one headed FINAL ACTION DATES and the next headed DATES FOR FILING. What does this mean?
How Do You Know Which Dates Apply to You?
The Final Action Dates chart shows when visas are currently available. If you are eligible under the Final Action Dates chart, you may file for lawful permanent residency (LPR), the green card. The Dates for Filing chart has a different meaning, depending on the time of year and the type of immigration processing you are using.
Those undergoing consular processing who are eligible according to the Dates for Filing chart will receive further instructions from the National Visa Center (NVC) for their application and interview. They will then be able to assemble the documentation they need for their green card application and prepare for their interview with the NVC.
USCIS will sometimes instruct those in the adjustment of status process to use the Dates of Filing chart instead of the Final Action Dates chart for their petitions. They do this when there are more visas available for the current fiscal year than there are applicants, so it generally occurs in the first few months of the fiscal year. That information is updated each month on the USCIS Visa Bulletin web page, which nonetheless notes: “[If] a particular immigrant visa category is ‘current’ on the Final Action Dates chart or the cutoff date on the Final Action Dates chart is later than the date on the Dates for Filing chart, applicants in that immigrant visa category may file using the Final Action Dates chart during that month.”
What Are Your Next Steps?
Confused? That’s natural. It is often very difficult to keep track of the many regulations, deadlines, and requirements in the American immigration process, and they can all be crucial to your future. You don’t have to handle this alone. If you need to talk to an Illinois immigration attorney about your case, our office is waiting to hear from you.