What you need to know about America’s family-based Green Cards – Economic Times


The family-based green card under U.S. immigration law, is broadly categorized into two groups: the immediate relative and family preference categories based on the relationship to the U.S. sponsor. To be eligible to apply for an immigrant visa, i.e., a green card, the foreign citizen must be sponsored by an immediate relative who is at least 21 years of age and is either a U.S. citizen or U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident (also known as a green-card holder).

The Green Card Process

The U.S. citizen sponsor starts the immigration process by petitioning on Form I-130 that is submitted to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After that, the foreign national submits additional paperwork and either goes through “Consular Processing” or “Adjustment of Status” to receive a U.S. immigrant visa. Once the foreign national receives the immigrant visa he or she is given six months within which they must enter the U.S. A physical green card is mailed to the foreign national (immigrant) within a few weeks of arriving in the U.S. Until the green card is received, the immigrant may use the immigrant visa for overseas travel, proof of work authorization, opening a bank account procuring a driver’s license, etc. The immigrant visa is usually valid for up to six months from the date of issuance.

In some cases, where the immigrant is already in the U.S. (ideally in lawful immigration status), that person need not leave, but can apply to the USCIS for “Adjustment of Status” by submitting Form I-485 with relevant documents and attending an interview at a USCIS office before being granted permanent residence status. In many immediate-relative adjustment of status cases it may be possible to submit the I-130 and I-485 packets to the USCIS all together, or “concurrently.”

Immediate Relatives


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An unlimited number of green cards can be issued to immigrants who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, which means they are not subject to numeric caps or quotas that are applicable to other family categories and employment based green cards. Immediate relatives are defined as:

  • spouses of U.S. citizens, including recent widows and widowers and (as of 2013) same-sex couples whose marriage is legal in the state or country where it took place
  • unmarried people under the age of 21 who have at least one U.S. citizen parent
  • parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is over the age of 21
  • stepchildren and stepparents, if the marriage creating the stepparent/stepchild relationship took place before the child’s 18th birthday, and
  • parents and children related through adoption, if the adoption took place before the child reached the age of 16. All immigration rules governing natural parents and children apply to adoptive relatives, but there are some additional procedures to be followed.

Fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens are also just a few steps away from a green card. But if the fiancé is overseas and the couple wishes to get married in the U.S. before applying for a green card, the first step is to apply for a temporary (90-day) visa called a K-1 fiancé visa. After the marriage, the immigrant can apply directly to the USCIS for “Adjustment of Status” on Form I-485 and, following the USCIS interview, the foreign national spouse will be granted “conditional permanent residence,” which should eventually lead to permanent residence.

Family Preference Categories
Certain other family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents are also eligible for U.S. green cards. However, only a limited number of green cards are available to these applicants. They typically have to wait several years to get them, based on their place in the following preference categories and their place of birth:

  • Family first preference. Unmarried people, any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Family second preference. 2A: Spouses of green card holders and unmarried children under age 21; 2B: unmarried sons and daughters (who are over age 21) of green card holders.
  • Family third preference. Married people, of any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Family fourth preference. Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens where the citizen is over 21 years old.

The U.S. family member must start the process by petitioning for the immigrant on Form I-130. Following the USCIS’s approval, however, the intending immigrants might have to wait several years until their “priority date” is current and they can move forward (also following the same process described above). Each year, a total of 226,000 family-based green cards are issued to applicants from different countries. While this might sound like a large number, the volume of people seeking green cards annually is often much higher. The wait time for a “priority date” to become current could be a few years to a couple of decades depending on the visa category and the country from which the immigrant is applying (due to per-country limits).

There is no direct way to sponsor U.S. green cards for one’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and more extended relation. However, you can create a chain of relationships so that a more immediate family member can petition for them. For example, a U.S. citizen could petition for his or her parents; and they could, after receiving a green card and eventually U.S. citizenship (Usually after at least 5 years as a green card holder), petition for their parents (the initial sponsor’s grandparents). But this strategy requires long-term planning.

It is important to remember, that every immigrant (including minor dependents) must fit the eligibility criteria all the way up through their approval for adjustment of status or entry to the U.S. on an immigrant visa. If a child is 21 years of age or older when the priority date becomes current the child may not be eligible for an immigrant visa unless he is covered by the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA). Further, for example, someone immigrating as an unmarried child gets married in between receiving their U.S. visa and entering the United States, they will be denied entry.

The authors will further explain the process and other elements of the family based green card process in subsequent articles that will be published here.

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