I-130 Approval Is Not Green Card!
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The I-130 Petition for Alien Relative is probably the most common immigration form filed by people in the U.S. immigration system. A lot of people contact us right after the I-130 petition has just been approved. They’ve been waiting for years and happy. They want to know what they can do to claim their green cards right there and then!
Sorry, we have to tell them. The I-130 approval is a necessary first step for immigrants but does not necessarily entitle them to a green card right away, except for “immediate relatives.” The purpose of the I-130 petition is simply to classify the immigrant as a close relative of the person filing the form to put them into one of the recognized categories of U.S. immigration law. So, when U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) approves the I-130, it is simply saying in effect: “OK, we find this immigrant is indeed your spouse/son/daughter/sibling as you claim.” That’s all. They’re not saying the immigrant got the green card. Not yet.
The five family-preference, or relative, categories are:
F1: unmarried sons and daughters 21 and over of U.S. citizens
F2A: spouses and children under 21 of legal permanent residents (green-card holders)
F2B: unmarried sons and daughters 21 and over of legal permanent residents
F3: married sons and daughters 21 and over of U.S. citizens
F4: brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens
In the above, “F” just stands for “Family.” The U.S. citizen or permanent resident filing the I-130 for his or her relative will be referred to as the “petitioner” and the relative(s) will be referred to as “beneficiary” or “beneficiaries.” From the categories listed above, yes, of course you are probably wondering, “What about spouses and children under 21 of U.S. citizens, shouldn’t they be listed somewhere?” The answer is, yes, but not in the five categories above. They are part of a separate and special category called “immediate relatives” that was mentioned. Whereas, the relatives in the categories above are in the “family-preference categories.” F1 has the highest preference and F4 has the lowest preference. Meaning there are generally more visas allocated each year to the higher preferences although every category has a limited number of visas allocated to it each year. Obviously, the F4 category is the slowest category because it has the lowest priority, i.e., the least number of visas available each year for it. Waits of 10 years or more is normal for F4.
Long Waits for I-130 Approval and for Visa Numbers
The problem is that an I-130 filed for a relative in one of these preference categories usually takes years just to be approved. Let’s call this Stage 1: from the time of filing the I-130 until its approval. For example, as of May 31, 2013 (latest data available), it’s taking about 3 1/2 years until approval for an I-130 in the F1 category at the California Service Center (CSC), and almost 1 1/2 years until approval at Vermont Service Center (VSC). For brothers and sisters (F4 category), it’s taking about 3 1/2 years until I-130 approval at CSC and almost 3 years at VSC. These are average processing times reported on the USCIS website; your own petition may be longer or faster. You’d think it’s normally not too difficult to prove that someone is your child or sibling, and you’d be correct, since usually USCIS only asks to see birth certificates (except for marriage cases because of the prevalence of fraud). Yet, they can take that long to get through Stage 1! It is thus not surprising that when they receive the I-130 approval notice from USCIS, the beneficiary and their petitioner feel such happiness that they believe the beneficiary’s green card has been approved or will be soon.
The truth is that, after getting through Stage 1, most of the times the beneficiary still has to endure another wait, sometimes very long. That wait is for a visa number to become available. Let’s call this Stage 2: from I-130 approval until a visa number is available. As mentioned, there are limited number of visas available each year in each category. It’s first-come first-served, so whoever got the I-130 filed for them first will be in line ahead of another person who was petitioned for at a later date. The date that USCIS receives the I-130 is called the “priority date.” This is the date that determines if there is a visa number in your category.
The U.S. Department of State publishes the Visa Bulletin each month which you can use to check what priority dates are current in your category. Once there, click on the link for the current month (or latest month). For example, the August 2013 Visa Bulletin, under the F1 category, shows the cut-off date of “01SEP06″ for beneficiaries who are citizens of most countries (that is, not India, China, Mexico, or Philippines, who have their own columns in the Visa Bulletin table — Mexico and Philippines are notoriously slow since there is so much demand for visa numbers from those two countries). This means that currently as of mid-August 2013, only I-130 petitions filed for unmarried sons and daughters 21 and over of U.S. citizens before Sept. 1, 2006 have visa numbers available for most countries.
Example: As an example of the Stage 2 wait for visa number after the I-130 has been approved, let’s say you’re a U.S. citizen petitioning now for your unmarried daughter over 21 (F1 category) from Mexico, so the priority date is in August 2013. Currently, for the August 2013 Visa Bulletin, visa numbers are available in the F1 category for those Mexicans with I-130s filed on or before Sept. 1, 1993 (almost 20 years ago). So, even after the I-130 has been approved, which could take 3 1/2 years for F1 as seen above at California Service Center, your daughter still has to wait for about another 16 years before a visa number is available for her to immigrate. Or, let’s say you’re a U.S. citizen petitioning for your brother now from the Philippines. Looking at the same Bulletin, visa numbers are currently available in the F4 category for those Filipinos with I-130s filed on or before Jan. 8, 1990 (more than 23 years ago!). So, even after the I-130 has been approved, which could take about 3 years for F4 at CSC, your brother still has to wait about 20 more years for a visa number, or to get through Stage 2.
Looking up the Visa Bulletin can only give an estimate as to when a visa number will become available. It is impossible to give a precise answer as to how fast each category will move in the future, especially if your priority date is several years behind. For some months, the visa numbers can move very fast, but then they will slow down, barely moving at all. All one can say is, for example, right now, the August 2013 Visa Bulletin shows that in the F3 category (married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens), the priority cut-off date is 08DEC02″ for most countries, which means only those F3 petitions filed prior to Dec. 8, 2002 have visa numbers, for beneficiaries of most countries. If your priority date is in 2007, for example, then it may take five years, more or less, until there is a visa number available for you.
Note: Sometimes, USCIS takes so long to approve the I-130 due to whatever glitches or problems in the particular case that Stage 1 becomes much longer than it should, so that once the I-130 is approved, the Stage 2 wait for a visa number can be relatively short. In even rarer cases, on the date that a visa number becomes available for the beneficiary’s particular priority date, the I-130 is not even approved yet! That is, Stage 2 and Stage 1 are effectively reversed. In that case, the beneficiary still has to wait until the I-130 is finally approved before they could proceed to Stage 3.
Note: Sorry, but we cannot answer for free questions of the type, “I’m in so-and-so category, with I-130 petition filed on so-and-so date. How long do you think I have to wait?” This blog article was originally written to show people how to use the Visa Bulletin to look the information up themselves and to estimate how long the wait might be in their own cases. Hundreds of people have asked this question on the blog or emailed us when they can do this themselves. It is quite easy to do. As mentioned, using the Visa Bulletin will give you only an estimate of the wait. No one can predict precisely how quickly visa numbers will move in the next few years. Not even USCIS or us lawyers can tell you for sure.
No Benefits While Waiting for Visa Numbers to Be Available: During the wait until a visa number is available, or in Stage 2, the fact that a beneficiary has an I-130 filed for them does not mean that they get any immigration benefit because of that I-130. The same thing during Stage 1. If the person is here in the U.S. in unlawful status, they must take care not to be picked up by USCIS and put into removal (deportation) proceedings.
Also, people ask us this all the time but with only an approved I-130, the person does not get a temporary work permit if a visa number is not yet available. Neither will they get a driver’s license since the DMV will not issue a license unless the person has work authorization in the U.S. or proof of legal status. In other words, if you’re here illegally or you’re out-of-status on your visa, the I-130 by itself does not do anything to make you legal. This is just a false hope. It’s amazing how many of our clients were duped by notarios, non-lawyers, and even bad lawyers who told them otherwise about what the I-130 could do for them.
For example, some immigrants are under the mistaken impression (or given bad advice) that despite the long waits for visa numbers above, as soon as they have an I-130 filed for them and received by USCIS, or receive news of the I-130′s approval, that they can start filing for their green card or to be legal at that moment. There is no such thing. Be careful: filing such application or paperwork too early will, at best, leads to rejection of the application and loss of filing fees, and at worst, may result in removal proceedings if the immigrant is out-of-status or illegal in this country. Unless the immigrant is an immediate relative, there is no shortcut or going around Stage 2 before the next step for the green card can be taken.
What Happens Once Visa Numbers Are Available
However, after the wait when the priority date is finally “current,” meaning that a visa number is finally available, the beneficiary at that point can proceed to the final Stage 3: actually applying for permanent residence or green card status. This stage has three different possibilities:
a. If the beneficiary came to the U.S. originally with a visa or was inspected, is still in status and does not have serious grounds of inadmissibility, he or she can file for adjustment of status in this country, similar to the “easy” boyfriend or girlfriend scenario described in “It’s Easy for Me to get a Green Card by Marrying My U.S. Citizen Boyfriend or Girlfriend, Right?”
b. If the beneficiary came illegally or has been out-of-status (and not an immediate relative), then he or she must go back to the home country and apply at the U.S. consulate, with the 3- or 10-year bar being an obstacle (except for those out-of-status/illegal for 180 days or less), a difficult situation just like the boyfriend or girlfriend that was described in “I’m Illegal, I Can Still Get a Green Card by Marrying My U.S. Citizen Boyfriend or Girlfriend?” There is also a category of those who came illegally or who have been out-of-status who can apply for adjustment of status here (and not have to apply in their home country), if they have had certain old petitions filed for them in the past.
c. On the other hand, if the beneficiary is outside the U.S., they will file the immigrant visa package with the U.S. consulate in their country, submit police background and medical checks, among other documents, and then be interviewed at the consulate to receive the immigrant visa (unless if they had spent more than 180 days illegally/out-of-status in the U.S. on a prior stay). With the immigrant visa in hand, they can be admitted to the U.S. as a legal permanent resident.
A very important benefit for these family-preference categories is that the spouse and children under 21 of the main beneficiary are also entitled to immigrate at the same time, and in the same order of priority as him or her when a visa number is available.
The exception or shortcut to all the long waiting described above is the category of “immediate relatives” mentioned. This is composed of three subcategories: (1) spouses of U.S. citizens, (2) children under 21 of U.S. citizens, and (3) parents of U.S. citizens when the citizen is at least 21. There are always visa numbers available for these people in unlimited numbers. So, they are highly preferred, or favored, in the U.S. immigration system, much more preferred than those in the five “family-preference categories” above. For an immediate relative, on the date the I-130 is filed, they can skip Stages 1 and 2 and go directly to Stage 3 if they qualify for adjustment of status in the U.S. to green card. If they’re outside the U.S., only Stage 1 (filing of I-130 until approval) has to be waited for, Stage 2 would be zero.
One major advantage for an immediate relative is that both the I-130 petition and the adjustment application are allowed to be filed concurrently, i.e., filed at the same time. Compare that with immigrants in the family-preference categories who must first wait for an I-130 to be approved (go through Stage 1), which could take years as described above, then wait for Stage 2 to complete, and finally proceed to Stage 3 for the adjustment application to green card.
So, to sum it up, if you are someone interested in immigrating to the U.S. and you are not an immediate relative, having a U.S. citizen or legal resident relative file the I-130 for you, despite the long wait for visa numbers, is still good future planning because it reserves your place in the line. We can assist you with filing the I-130 since approval can sometimes be difficult.