How Sponsorship for an Immigration Petition Works

What it means to sponsor an immigrant for a U.S. green card, and who you can sponsor.

For a citizen of a foreign nation to apply for and receive an immigrant visa, U.S. immigration law generally requires that the person be petitioned (sometimes called sponsored, though this actually has a narrower meaning). A family relation or an employer can petition for someone.

Petitioning for someone typically involves filing an initial visa petition on their behalf, typically using USCIS Form I-130 (in family cases) or I-140 (in employment cases). It also requires some support through the rest of the process.

Family petitioners become "sponsors" as well, because they must promise the U.S. government to support the immigrant financially (and show capacity to do so). If the green card interview will be held in the United States, a family petitioner may possibly need to attend the interview along with the immigrant.

Employer petitioners must promise to provide a job when the immigrant arrives, at a certain salary. (However, the employer does not have to promise to keep that person working there for any particular length of time.)

Who Can You Petition for a Family-Based Immigrant Visa?

There are two types of family-based immigrant visas: immediate relatives and preference relatives.

Immediate relative immigrant visas include a U.S. citizen's:

Family preference immigrant visa categories include:

  • First Preference (F1): unmarried children of U.S. citizens, along with their minor children.
  • Second Preference (F2): In subcategory 2A, spouses (including same-sex) and minor children of lawful permanent residents. In subcategory 2B, unmarried children of a lawful permanent resident who are 21 years of age or over.
  • Third preference (F3): married children of U.S. citizens, along with their spouses and minor children.
  • Fourth Preference (F4): siblings (brothers and sister) of U.S. citizens who are 21 or older, along with their spouses and minor children.

The preference level of a requested visa will determine how long the immigrant has to wait until a visa becomes available. Immediate relatives wait the least time -- they have an unlimited number of visas available to them, so it's just a matter of getting through the application process. Preference relatives' wait times tend to get longer as the family relationship gets more distant. Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens face the longest waits, often up to 24 years. 

Which country the relative is from also affects wait times. There is a per-country limit on visas, so when there's high demand, the wait gets longer. The longest waits tend to affect people from Mexico, the Philippines, India, and China.

Who Can an Employer Petition for an Immigrant Visa?

Employers may also petition for immigrant employees to receive green cards in order to work with them. (Don't confuse this with the many temporary visas that also require employer petitions, such as an H-1B.) Some immigrating workers don't need an employer to petition for them, however.

For an employer to bring in a foreign citizen to work, it must get labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor. This involves proving that no U.S. workers are ready, willing, and available to take the job being offered. Then the employer will file a petition called the Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker (Form I-140) with USCIS. There are five categories for these types of visas. 

  • Employment First Preference (E1) includes three subcatgories. The first is priority workers who have extraordinary abilities in the arts, sciences, education, business, or athletics. These workers are able to file their own petitions, without needing an employer -- although they must intend to continue working in the same field. The second subcategory is for outstanding, internationally recognized professors and researchers, who have at least three years of experience and a job offer from a U.S. institution of higher education. The third subcategory includes multinational managers and executives of US companies who have worked for at least three years at the U.S. company's overseas branch offices, subsidiaries, or affiliates. These individuals also need a job offer to immigrate.
  • Employment Second Preference (E2) has two subcategories. The first is for professionals who have advanced degrees (beyond a baccalaureate or B.A.) or those who have a B.A. plus at least five years progressive experience. The second is for workers with exceptional ability in the arts, sciences, or business.
  • Employment Third Preference (E3) has three subcategories. The first includes skilled workers, with a minimum of two years' training or work experience and not coming for a temporary or seasonal job. The second is for members of the professions whose jobs require at least a baccalaureate degree from a U.S. university or college or its foreign equivalent. The third is for unskilled workers, able to fill positions that require less than two years training or experience and that are not temporary or seasonal.
  • Employment Fourth Preference (E4), also called "special immigrants," includes too many subcategories to list here. The main ones include ministers, broadcasters, certain U.S. government employees, certain religious workers, children who are dependents of the juvenile court system, and people who have worked for or on behalf of the US government, including Iraqi and Afghani interpreters and translators.
  • Employment Fifth Preference (E5) (the "investor visa") includes immigrants who want to invest at least $1,000,000 (or $500,000 in an economically depressed area) in a business that will create a minimum of ten new full-time jobs for U.S. citizens, permanent residents or other lawful immigrants (other than the immigrant and his or her immediate family). This category does not require labor certification -- the investor starts the process by filing USCIS Form I-526.

Again, the different preference levels can impact the difficulty or ease of receiving a visa, and how long one has to wait.

Getting Professional Help

Applying for an immigrant visa can be confusing for both petitioner and immigrant alike. And the stakes are high -- one mistake and a case can be delayed for months, or fail altogether. To ensure you select the proper visa for the proper type of immigrant and petitioner, and for help assembling all required documentation and completing the various forms, it is always advisable to seek advice from an immigration attorney.

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