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The priority date is the date the first paperwork for permanent residence is filed with a government agency. For an Employer-sponsored case, this is either the date a labor certification is first filed with the Department of Labor, or if not a labor certification-based case then the date the immigrant petition (most often an I-140 Immigrant Visa Petition) is first filed with USCIS. For a family-sponsored case, this will be the date the I-130 Petition for Alien Relative is filed (this may or may not be the same date as the I-485 is filed).

The Priority Date establishes the foreign national’s place on line for an immigrant visa. There are limited numbers of immigrant visas available for each of the various categories. These categories are called “Preference Classes.” Each preference class has its own queue for immigrant visas, and the priority date and the preference class of the petition determine how long the person being petitioned for has to wait for an “immigrant visa” – a requirement to process the final phase of any green card case – to become available. The queues for an available immigrant visa are a separate issue from processing queues

Preference Classes are numbered categories which define types of immigrant visas. There are separate sets of preference classes for family-based immigration, employment-based immigration, and – although we won’t discuss these here – the Diversity Visa Lottery.. The case must fit into one of the preference classes for an immigrant petition to be approvable, and the preference class into which it fits must be indicated on the form filed for that petition (the I-140 for employment-based petitions, the I-130 for family-based petitions). The preference classes for employment-based I-140 Immigrant Visa Petitions are:
First Preference
Alien of Extraordinary Ability
Outstanding Researcher
Multinational Executive or Manager
Second Preference
Advanced Degree Professional (job requires at least a Master’s degree)
Alien of Exceptional Ability
Third Preference
Professional (job requires at least a four-year Bachelor’s degree)
Skilled Worker (job requires at least two years of experience)
Fourth Preference
“Special Immigrants” – 11 different situations pertaining to niche groups which occur somewhat less frequently
Fifth Preference
Alien Investors (those creating U.S. Employment Opportunities)

The preference classes for family-based I-130 Petitions for Alien Relative are:
First Preference
Unmarried Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens
Second Preference
Part “A”: Spouses and Children (under 21 years of age) of U.S. Permanent Residents
Part “B”: Unmarried Sons and Daughters (over 21 years of age) of U.S. Permanent Residents
Third Preference
Married Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens
Fourth Preference
Brothers and Sisters of Adult U.S. Citizens

There are a certain number of immigrant visas allotted to each preference classification in both the family and employment categories. Within each preference classification, a certain number of immigrant visas are allotted to each country. Sometimes, certain countries with high levels of immigration to the U.S. become “oversubscribed” – more people “charged to” that country want immigrant visas than there are immigrant visas to go around – before other countries. The country to which a foreign national is “charged” or counted against is the foreign national’s country of birth (not current citizenship or nationality). Countries which often become oversubscribed more often than most other countries include India, Mexico, the Philippines, and sometimes China. Availability for these countries is broken out separately by the U.S. State Department on its web site.