Wednesday, 22 August 2012 00:00

Getting your visa

Written by Allie Word
Visa applicants who get bad advice can waste many years and thousands of dollars, says Maria Hernandez. Visa applicants who get bad advice can waste many years and thousands of dollars, says Maria Hernandez. Allie Word

Maria Hernandez has experienced the financial and personal struggles of families going through the visa application process.

When one of her relatives tried to get a visa several years ago, they hired a lawyer from Georgia.

Months later, the lawyer ended up dropping the case.

"It is very hard to save that money. If you mess up, you have to save all over again."

     – Maria Hernandez

The lawyer told Maria's family that he could not help them. They had already spent about $15,000 on the lawyer and had no way of getting the money back.

"Many people just don't know who they can trust," said Hernandez. "Families are afraid they will be separated from family members if something goes wrong."

After talking to friends, Hernandez's family found another lawyer they believe they can trust. However, the lawyer still charges about $7,000 for the down payment, plus about $2,000 every time they see him. They also pay for travel and many other small fees.

Hernandez has learned that many years and thousands of dollars can be wasted if a family does not work with a qualified immigration lawyer or adviser. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services gives a description of each family-sponsored category. Knowing the process you will go through to get a visa will help you ask important questions.

Step I

For a family-sponsored petition, a relative fills out the application. Then, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reviews the application. This step is the most important because there are five kinds of family petitions.

Step II

If you are an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen (spouse, single child under 21 years old, or parents) you do not have to wait for a visa to be available.

Only U.S. citizens and Green Card holders can apply for a family petition. Citizens can apply for visas for their husbands or wives, children and parents. And Green Card holders can only apply for visas for their husbands or wives, and unmarried children under 21 years old.

All others need a visa number. The number is given by the National Visa Center of the U.S. Department of State. It is important to have filed a petition under the correct family-sponsored category. Each category has a different cutoff date for applications.

People with family-sponsored petitions always go by the cutoff dates on the Visa Bulletin. The cutoff dates can change from month-to-month, moving to earlier or later dates. Since the cutoff dates change so frequently, it makes it impossible for immigration lawyers and qualified specialists to answer the question: “How long will I have to wait?”

There is no annual limit of visas for a U.S. citizen’s immediate relatives. However, visas for family petitioners do have annual limits. In 2012, the limit for family-sponsored visas was 15,820. There is also an annual limit for the number of visas issued per country. Once the limit is reached applications are put on a waiting list. Mexico, the Philippines and India are the three countries with the most applications on the waiting list.

Major countries of origin for visa applicants as of Nov. 1, 2011





1,37 million







China, mainland



Changing your immigration status

Step III

You have filed your petition. You have received your application number and cutoff date. The third step is when your date comes up. If the case is approved, the immigration status will be changed to "legal permanent resident."

If you are petitioning for someone outside the U.S., he or she can apply for a visa at the U.S. consulate in his or her country and then travel to the U.S.

Once your application date comes up, there could still be months of waiting. The cutoff date can remain on the Visa Bulletin for months before the USCIS can get to your application and change your immigration status. Sometimes this happens because the limited number of visas for your country has already been issued for that year.

Family-Sponsored immigrant visas

The first step is finding out which family-sponsored group you are in. There are five groups: FI, F2A, F2B, F3, and F4. If you are a permanent resident, you can only fall under F2A or F2B. The other three groups are only for U.S. citizens.

To help you find out which of the five groups you are under, make sure you understand each one.


You are a U.S. citizen

You are petitioning for your son or daughter who is not married and at least21 years old.

During the immigration petition process your son or daughter cannot get married


You are a permanent resident

You are petitioning for your spouse

Or, you are applying for your son or daughter who is under21 years old


You are a permanent resident

You are petitioning for your son or daughter who is not married and at least21 years old

During the immigration petition process, your son or daughter cannot get married


You are a U.S. citizen

You are petitioning for your marriedson or daughter


You are a U.S. citizens at least21 years old

You are petitioning for your brothers or sisters

Getting Help in East Tennessee

alma.vazquezAlma Vazquez (right) is the immigrant services case coordinator at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, located at 321 W. Walnut St., in Johnson City. in Jonesborough. She is an accredited representative for the Bureau of Immigration Appeals. She works with families in the region.

Getting a green card or petitioning for a family member to get a visa can be a struggle financially. Vazquez says it is important to work with either an immigration lawyer or someone BIA-accredited. "It is a dangerous idea to work with someone who is not an immigration lawyer or BIA-accredited," said Vazquez.

If the process is not done correctly, families can lose everything they have put into it. Then you have to go through the process again. Maria Hernandez has gone through this mistake with her family.

"It is very hard to save that money," said Hernandez. "If you mess up, you have to save all over again."

Vazquez said an immigration lawyer can cost about $3,000 to $4,000 a person. "You also have to pay application fees and traveling costs," said Vazquez.

The Office of Immigrant Services at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee offers the services at a lower price and Vazquez is able to go through the entire process with a family. Since she is BIA-accredited, she knows the immigration laws and is able to answer questions.

Vazquez said that the small number of immigration lawyers and services in the East Tennessee region is a problem for many families going through the immigration process. The closest immigration lawyer in the East Tennessee region is in Knoxville, and only Vazquez and two others in this region are BIA-accredited.

Immigration services at Catholic Charities include petitioning for family members, adjustments of status, renewing work permits, citizenship and naturalization, affidavits of support and replacement of immigration documents.

"My family didn't know about lawyers or advisors in this area," said Hernandez. "That's why we go all the way to Georgia."

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