Changes to the Visa Bulletin: Understanding the Two Filing Charts

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On October 1, 2015, the U.S. Department of State made changes to the monthly Visa Bulletin so there are now two different dates to track: the Application Final Action Dates (AFAD) and the Dates for Filing Applications (DFA).  The Bulletin revisions are meant to improve the backlog in the family-sponsored preference and employment-sponsored preference categories, where the demand for immigrant visas can – and often do – exceed the supply each year. In some categories, the wait for a visa to become available is as long as 5 to 10+ years.

Advantages with the New System

The priority date marks the applicant’s place in the visa queue. In the family-based categories, the priority date is the date USCIS received the Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative or in certain cases, the Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er) or Special Immigrant.

In employment-based categories, it’s the date the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) received the application for alien labor certification or the date USCIS received the Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker (if no alien labor certification is required). In certain cases, it’s the date USCIS received the Form I-360 petition (EB-4, fourth preference category) or the Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur (EB-5, fifth preference category).

The AFAD chart is consistent with previous Visa Bulletins under the old system. AFADs are the cut-off dates that determine when an immigrant visa becomes available to Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa applicants or Form I-485, Adjustment of Status applicants, depending on their priority date, preference category, and country of chargeability.

The DFA chart is part of the new system and was first introduced in the October 2015 Visa Bulletin. DFAs are the cut-off dates that determine when Immigrant Visa applicants – depending on their priority date, preference and category – should receive notice from the DOS’ National Visa Center (NVC) instructing them to submit their documents for consular processing.

Each month, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) also determines whether eligible applicants in the U.S. may use the DFA chart, instead of the AFAD chart, for filing their I-485 applications. Current information is posted on the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov/visabulletininfo. When USCIS finds there are more immigrant visas available for the fiscal year than there are known applicants for such visas, USCIS will state on its website that I-485 applicants may use the DFA chart in the Visa Bulletin.

The DFAs are later than the AFADs, by as much as one year or so, as shown in the November and December 2015 Visa Bulletins. Example: In the December 2015 Visa Bulletin, the DFA for the family-sponsored, second preference, F2A category is March 1, 2015 (“01MAR15”). Meanwhile, the AFAD for this same category is June 15, 2014 (“15JUN14”). If the applicant’s priority date is April 30, 2015, or otherwise earlier than the DFA, he may file the I-485 with USCIS in December 2015, even though an immigrant visa is not yet available. Under the old system, the applicant’s priority date must have been June 14, 2014, or otherwise earlier than the AFAD, before he could file the I-485 in December.

The new system allows Immigrant Visa applicants and sometimes Adjustment of Status applicants to get a head start on filing for permanent residence. They may apply for an immigrant visa or adjustment of status even before their priority dates become current and a visa actually becomes available to them, as shown in the AFAD chart.

When the Immigrant Visa applicant’s priority date is earlier than the cut-off date in the DFA chart, he may submit required documents to the NVC, following receipt of notice containing filing instructions.

If USCIS determines the DFA chart may be used in a particular month, it will accept I-485 adjustment applications when the applicant’s priority date is earlier than the cut-off date in the DFA chart. Applicants with pending I-485s may also file for and receive an employment authorization document (EAD) and advance parole (travel document).

Those who are stuck in the employment-based backlog have greater job mobility with an EAD that is based on a pending I-485. In particular, once an employment-based I-485 application is pending 180 days or more, “portability” rights generally allow the individual to change employers, as long as the new job is in the same or a similar occupation.

Limitations of the New System

Unless otherwise stated on the USCIS website, individuals seeking green cards within the U.S. must normally use the AFAD chart for determining when they may file their I-485 applications. When USCIS finds there are fewer immigrant visas available for the fiscal year than there are known applicants for such visas, I-485 applicants must use the AFAD chart, instead of the DFA chart, to file their applications.

All applicants still have to wait for the AFAD to become current before the green card or immigrant visa can be issued.

USCIS will not adjudicate or approve the I-485 until the priority date becomes current or is earlier than the cut-off date in the AFAD chart. Even if the applicant filed early under the DFA chart, it could be another year or so before he receives an I-485 decision or green card. A final decision on Immigrant Visa applications also cannot be taken until the AFAD becomes current.

When applicants file their I-485 or Immigrant Visa application early under the DFA chart, material changes may occur while they are waiting for the AFAD to become current. They might get arrested, charged and convicted of a crime that affects their eligibility for a green card. Waivers are available for only certain criminal-related grounds of inadmissibility in only some cases.

Furthermore, failure to report material changes in one’s case to USCIS or the U.S. Consulate may be construed as fraud or willful misrepresentation to gain immigration benefits. This is a lifetime bar to obtaining permanent residence. Fraud/misrepresentation waivers are available only to applicants with a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent who would suffer extreme hardship if the applicant was not admitted to the U.S.

Generally, all I-485 applicants must submit a Form I-693, Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record, completed by a designated U.S. civil surgeon. A completed Form I-693 is valid for only 12 months from the time it is submitted to USCIS. Applicants must also submit the Form I-693 to USCIS within one year of the immigration medical examination.

If the Form I-693 is filed with the I-485 under the DFA chart, it may expire by the time the AFAD is current and USCIS can issue a final decision on the I-485. To avoid re-doing the immigration medical examination, I-485 applicants might want to wait until receiving a Request for Evidence (RFE) or until the I-485 interview to submit the Form I 693.

The revised procedures in the Visa Bulletin does not change eligibility requirements for I-485 and Immigrant Visa applicants. For example, individuals must still be in lawful nonimmigrant status (e.g. H-1B or F-1) when they file an I-485 application in the family-sponsored or employment-based category. Those who are out of status in the U.S. normally do not qualify for adjustment of status. Instead, they must depart the U.S. to apply for an immigrant visa.

If they depart the U.S. after accruing more than 180 days to less than 1 year of unlawful presence, they trigger a 3-year bar to re-entry. The bar is 10 years if the unlawful presence lasted 1 year or more. To be excused from the 3/10 year bar so they may obtain an immigrant visa before the 3/10 years pass, they must apply for and receive an I-601 waiver. Getting the waiver requires them to show a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent will suffer extreme hardship if they are not admitted to the U.S.

A pending I-485 generally provides “authorized stay” even if the person falls out status – as long as the I-485 is non-frivolous and was timely and properly filed with USCIS. But when possible, it is best to maintain or extend lawful nonimmigrant status (e.g. H-1B or L-1) until USCIS approves the I-485. Failure to maintain status leaves the person with no safety net if USCIS later decides to deny the I-485 or revoke the approval of the underlying visa petition.

The Visa Bulletin Matters to Green Card Applicants in the Family-Sponsored and Employment-Based Preference Categories, But Not to Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens 

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) limits the number of immigrant visas that may be issued, each year, to foreign nationals seeking to become lawful permanent residents in the family-sponsored and employment-based preference categories. Visas in these preference categories are not always available.

When demand exceeds supply of visas for a given year in a given category or country, a visa queue (backlog) forms. The DOS distributes the visas based on the applicant’s priority date, preference category, and country of chargeability.

When the priority date is earlier than the cut-off date in the AFAD chart, or the AFAD is “current” (“C”) for the preference category and country of chargeabilty, prospective immigrants can receive a final decision on their I-485 or immigrant visa applications.

If the Visa Bulletin shows “U” in a category, immigrant visas are temporarily unavailable to all applicants in that preference category and/or country of chargeability.

Immigrant visas for “immediate relatives” of U.S. citizens, however, are unlimited. An immigrant visa is always available to:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens
  • Unmarried, minor children (under age 21) of U.S. citizens
  • Parents of adult U.S. citizens (age 21 or older)
  • Widows or widowers of U.S. citizens if the U.S. citizen filed a Form I-130 immigrant petition before his or her death or if the widow(er) files a Form I-360, self-petition within 2 years of the citizen’s death

When Possible, It’s Better to File When the DFA Is Current, Instead of Wait for the AFAD to Become Current

You don’t have to file your I-485 or Immigrant Visa application when the DFA is current. But there are several advantages to getting an early start. Filing under the DFA chart helps to ensure cases are ready to be approved when the AFAD becomes current.

Like AFADs, DFAs can roll back instead of move forward. Still, filing early provides some protection against visa retrogression. This is when a priority date that is current one month will not be current the next month, or the cut-off date will move backwards to an earlier date. Visa retrogression occurs when the visas have been used up or is expected to run out soon in the fiscal year. A new supply of visa numbers become available at the start of the fiscal year, October 1, but the priority dates might still take a while to return to where they were before retrogression.

While the new system does not involve any substantive changes in immigration law, it includes procedural changes that help to ease the backlog and provide some advantages to prospective immigrants.

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This article provides general information only. It is based on law, regulations and policy that are subject to change. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Each legal case is different and case examples do not constitute a prediction or guarantee of success or failure in any other case. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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Photo by: Xiaojun Deng

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