Green cards (immigrant visas) are limited to a fixed number each year. For family-based green cards (relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents), the quota is about 226,000. For employment-based green cards, the quota is about 140,000. The quota is further divided into separate categories (such as EB-2 and EB-3), each with a separate quota.

To complicate matters further, no more than about 25,000 visas can be issued to citizens of any one country.

The United States Department of State is in charge of keeping track of how many visas are issued in the various categories. Unfortunately, in my opinion, they do a terrible job of educating the public about how the quota system works. So I will try to explain the system in a few sentences.

The State Department tries to ensure that visas are issued based on first-come, first-served. The Visa Bulletin is a waiting list that tells applicants where they are on the list.

But it is an inexact waiting list. It doesn't indicate how many people are on the list before you.

Imagine being told at a busy restaurant that you must wait for a table, but the Maitre D' cannot tell you how many people are waiting before you. "You came at 7:00 P.M., and we are now seating people who arrived at 6:00 P.M. But we can't tell you how many people arrived between 6:00 and 7:00, or how long you will have to wait. Enjoy your evening."

It gets even worse. Sometimes, the government makes a mistake. "Sorry, we forgot about a number of customers who came at 5:00 P.M., so now you have to wait even longer."

So how does a rational person deal with this system? You need much patience and firm guidance. Here's what I tell my clients applying through their employers:

1. For EB-2 cases for citizens of every country except those born in India and China, there is no waiting list. Your case will get done as soon as Immigration processes the application (which can still take 1-2 years).

2. For EB-2 cases for persons born in China, the waiting list is about 4 years. This might speed up a little in the next year or two.

3. For EB-2 cases for persons born in India, the wait is about 5 years. This might speed up in the future, although I'm not optimistic because there is a very large number of Indian applicants in this category.

4. For EB-3 cases for citizens of every country except those born in India, China and Mexico, the wait is about 3-4 years. This probably will NOT speed up in the future.

5. For EB-3 cases for persons born in Mexico, India and China, the wait is currently about 8 years. This should speed up in the next 1-2 years.

6. Indians, Mexicans and Chinese can get into the faster quota for a different country if they are married to a person born in a different country.

7. The United States Congress is keenly aware of these long delays, and there have been a number of proposals to change the law to speed up the process in all the employment-based categories. But such changes are unlikely while the economy is in a shambles, so don't expect help from Congress in the next year or two.