Many people residing in the United States are undocumented, hoping to one day become legal U.S. residents. First, these undocumented individuals have to decipher which immigration path best suits them (marriage and family based green cards, work visas, special circumstances). They may need to find someone to petition on their behalf and meet with an immigration lawyer. They will file paperwork and gather evidence to petition for their status. Next, they have immigration interviews with USCIS. If the petition is approved, a whole new challenge arises. As many approved petitioners who are waiting for their visas to be processed can tell you: The waiting is the hardest part.
As a means of border security, there is a limit to the amount of certain visas given out every year. There are four main Visa Processing Centers: California, Nebraska, Texas, and Vermont. Processing times can vary depending on where your case is being processed. For example, perhaps more of a certain type of work visa goes through the California Processing Center. When the limit for that visa has been reached in California, similar upcoming cases are held over for the next year’s processing. Depending on how backed up a need for that certain work visa is, processing times could add up to years. However, those same work visas may not be as heavily sought after in Vermont, so the processing times for those work visas would be shorter. For VAWA petitioners (victims of domestic violence), there is no limit to how many eligible people can be processed per year. Same with asylum cases for Refugees; life or death situations take precedence.
Depending on what type of visa is being applied for, waiting times can very from eight years to a matter of days. Familial petition processing times vary depending on how far removed the relation is between the petitioner and the immigrant. If a citizen or Legal Permanent Resident (LPR) is petitioning for a foreign child or spouse, the waiting time is considerably less than if they were to petition for a foreign sibling.
If a nonimmigrant (someone from another country already working and living here legally, having a U.S. work visa) needs to extend or amend their work visa, the processing time is less than if they were a current foreigner petitioning under the same employer with the same job skills and experience. Depending on the level of career expertise, work visa processing times can differ as well. Engineers or people with advanced degrees applying for H-1B visas will have a shorter processing time than people at a lower skill level.
While going through the immigration process it is important to understand not just the different types of immigration programs available, but also how long it may take to reach an end goal of legal residence, citizenship, or the ability to work in the United States. Processing times will depend on the immigration path chosen, level of eligibility within that program, and which Processing Center the case goes through.
Another cause for processing delays is the current lack of funding for the immigration courts. The shortage of immigration judges has created a backlog for what should be routine legalization cases.
For more information on this backlog: Senate appropriators should fund the immigration courts.
For a general understanding of USCIS processing times, follow this link: USCIS Forms Processing Times
For more info on the processing times of specific locations: Processing Times by Location