Going to the Back of the Line: A Primer on Lines, Visa Categories, and Wait Times
This brief demystifies the technical meaning of going to the “back of the line”—a phrase adopted by lawmakers to convey the intent to grant legal status to unauthorized immigrants only after existing backlogs have been cleared. It explains what “the line” refers to, who is in it, and what it means to be at the back of it by examining existing pathways and current wait times for lawful permanent residence. It also highlights cases in which unauthorized immigrants may already be in the line and situations where there may be no line to join.
The brief clarifies that, contrary to popular belief, there is not one “line” that leads to lawful permanent residence; current immigration law provides multiple paths to permanent residency through an array of visa channels. Although visa petitions are adjudicated on a first-come, first-serve basis, annual numerical ceilings set for many of the admission categories prevent eligible applicants from obtaining immigration benefits right away. The legal immigration line often refers to this wait for a visa to become available, or “current,” and the priority date, or the date the petition was received, corresponds to the applicant’s place in the line. According to the brief, wait times can vary dramatically depending on a number of factors—the type of visa, the applicant’s country of origin, the size of the existing backlog, among others.
The author calculates that it would take 19 years to clear the existing backlog of more than 4 million individuals who have already demonstrated their visa eligibility but are waiting for their priority date to become current. While share of unauthorized immigrants within the estimated number of individuals waiting for immigrant visas is unknown, the author points out that these individuals may ultimately be unable to obtain LPR status under the current system—existing laws simultaneously forces unauthorized immigrants to return to their country of origin to claim their visa while imposing re-entry bars that prevent them from returning to the United States for a period of three to ten years.