Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Who had the longest wait for an immigrant visa this month?

Among those hopeful immigrants who are up for visas in December, who endured the longest wait? Little has changed in that those who have waited longest to come legally are from the Philippines, some of whom have been in line since 1988, followed by immigrants from Mexico.

Among the latter, those waiting in line the longest have been doing so since 1992, which is to say they've been waiting since Bill Clinton was elected and Nirvana was hot.

The line for immigrants from Mexico and the Philippines being sponsored by U.S. citizen and legal resident relatives moves at a glacial pace, so it can take decades from the time the paperwork is filed to sponsor a relative and the time that person arrives with an immigrant visa. According to this month’s Visa Bulletin from the U.S. State Department, here are the top four categories of immigrants who have waited longest for their number to come up:

1) Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens from the Philippines, a wait of more than 23 years (petitions filed September 8, 1988).

2) Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens from the Philippines, a wait of more than 19 years (petitions filed July 8, 1992)

3) Unmarried adult (21 and over) sons and daughters of U.S. legal permanent residents from Mexico, a wait of more than 19 years (petitions filed November 22, 1992)

4) Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens from Mexico, a wait of almost 19 years (petitions filed December 15, 1992)

How it works: Each month, immigrant visas technically become available to those whose priority dates, i.e. the dates on which their petitions were filed, are listed in the visa bulletin.

Why does it take so long for some? Every nation is allotted the same percentage of visas from a pool of family and employer-based visas available each year, regardless of the demand from any individual nation. Mexico, the Philippines, China and India are represented by large immigrant populations in the U.S., meaning there is very high demand for family reunification. The result is that hopeful immigrants in these countries must wait much longer - sometimes 20 years or more - for their turn to come legally than those in countries where demand isn’t as high.

This could change somewhat if a bill approved last week in the House, HR 3012 or the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, makes it through Congress. Though its focus is on employer-based visas, the bill would also raise the per-country limits on family-based visas from what it is now (no more than seven percent of the total) to 15 percent. The biggest change would be to the employer-based system, with those per-country limitations removed altogether. But it would not increase the total number of family- and employment-based visas that can be issued each year.

Immigrants who are defined as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, such as spouses, parents, and children under 21, are exempt from these limits (although U.S.-born children of immigrants must be 21 in order to sponsor their parents, and penalties apply if the parents entered illegally). Other relatives being sponsored must wait until their priority date comes up.

Being on the monthly priority date list for a family-based visa is great news for those waiting, of course. But the dates are subject to change at the last minute, and often do. This means that some who thought their long wait was over will have to wait longer.

The entire Visa Bulletin for December 2011 can be viewed here.