Immigrating to the U.S. through a U.S. citizen child is a possibility, but has some major limitations. The biggest is the child's required age. Only parents of a U.S. citizen who is at least age 21 are considered eligible to immigrate. But the good news is, they will be considered "immediate relatives," eligible for lawful permanent residence (a green card) right away, as soon as they can make it through the application process. With their U.S. residence, they can live and work in the United States permanently. (See I.N.A. § 201(b), 8 U.S.C. § 1151(b).)
Here, we'll talk about some other potential stumbling blocks, as well as the procedural pathways toward successfully obtaining a green card based on a U.S. citizen child; with a separate look at the procedural possibilities for parents who:
For starters, some parents of U.S. citizens who are themselves already living in the United States unlawfully, and who have already done so for six months or more, are inadmissible. This can create a time bar on receiving residence for up to ten years. They can potentially cure this by applying for a waiver of inadmissibility, but it involves proving that a U.S. qualifying U.S. relative would suffer extreme hardship if the visa were denied; and only spouses or parents count for this purpose, NOT children. You'd want a lawyer's help to fully analyze this. Also see Tips for Filing an I-601A Provisional Waiver Application.
Another issue is that children of immigrating parents take on a significant financial responsibility. The U.S. government will expect them to prove that their household income is sufficient to support their family and their parents at 125% or more above the U.S. poverty level.
Still another is that the parents must truly intend to live in the United States. A green card is not a travel document. If permanent residents stay outside the U.S. too long, U.S. border authorities might come to notice that they truly "live" somewhere else and have "abandoned" their U.S. residence, and then deny reentry to the United States.
It's not uncommon to have families living in the U.S. where the child is a U.S. citizen but the parent is an undocumented immigrant.
Perhaps the parents came to the U.S. unlawfully, or on a visa that has since expired, and gave birth to the child in the United States. Or perhaps the parents brought the child from another country, and the child somehow qualified for a green card while the parents did not, then eventually applied for U.S. citizenship (naturalization). Or perhaps a child came to the U.S. on a visa and eventually became a citizen, then invited parents to visit in the U.S., and they never got around to leaving.
In any of these cases, the parents need to understand that, if their unlawful stay was at least 180 days long, they have become "inadmissible" to the U.S. for three years; and if the unlawful stay was one year long, they have become "inadmissible" to the U.S. for ten years. See the discussion of getting a waiver, above (with the proviso that few are lucky enough to have "qualifying relatives" in the U.S. other than their children).
What does this ground of inadmissibility mean in practice? If the parents perform the final step of applying for a green card (a personal interview with an immigration official) in another country, they will not be allowed to return to the U.S. for three or ten years without a waiver.
But luckily for some parents; namely the ones who entered on a visa or through the visa waiver program; they will not be required to leave the U.S., but can stay and receive their green card through the procedure known as "adjustment of status," attending their interview at an office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This is true even if they overstayed the visa. The only catch is that they cannot have misused the visa, that is, obtained it simply in order to come to the U.S. and get a green card.
For more on the differences, see Consular Processing vs. Adjustment of Status.
Parents who entered the U.S. without inspection are not allowed to adjust status unless they fall into a rare exceptional category.
If parents of a U.S. citizen happen to be living in the U.S. on a valid visa, they should be able to adjust status as immediate relatives without trouble. That means submitting all their paperwork to and attending their interview at a USCIS office.
The only likely hurdle to this plan is if they committed visa fraud by applying for the U.S. nonimmigrant visa with the idea of gaining U.S. entry in order to adjust status. In other words, if they, for example, applied for a B-2 visitor visa, they are supposed to have truly intended to be tourists, and only later decided to apply for a green card.
For parents who are living outside the U.S., and who haven't done anything in the past to make them inadmissible, the application process to get a green card through a U.S. citizen child should be fairly straightforward.
The parents should expect to complete "consular processing," which means they will submit their paperwork to and attend their visa interview at a U.S. consulate in their home country before coming to the U.S. on an immigrant visa. Upon entry, they become lawful permanent residents. (The actual green card will arrive some weeks later.)
Exactly what process must be followed in getting a green card for parents depends on whether they will be adjusting status or going through consular processing. Both require payment of fees, but the amounts and timing of payments are also different. The actual forms are in most cases different as well, though the information collected is largely the same.
One of the important supporting forms for all applicants to submit is one the child will need to prepare, known as Form I-864, the affidavit of support. Its purpose is for the U.S. citizen child to promise to reimburse any government agency within the United States from which the parents receive need-based assistance over approximately the next ten years.
For applicants who are living in the U.S. and eligible to adjust status, the process basically involves submitting both an I-130 petition (prepared by the U.S. citizen child petitioner, sometimes called the sponsor) along with the parents' own application on Form I-485, with supporting forms and documents, to USCIS. These materials are submitted all at once by mail to USCIS, after which the parents will be called in for fingerprinting, and finally an interview.
For consular processing, the child will start off the processing by submitting an I-130 visa petition to USCIS. After that is approved, the case will be transferred first to the National Visa Center (NVC), and then to an overseas U.S. consulate. The parents will fill out various State Department forms. The parents will attend an interview at a U.S. consulate or embassy in their home country.
If the U.S. citizen child wishes to sponsor an adopted or step-parent, both are possible. However, the adoption must have been finalized before the child turned 16, and the parents and child must have lived in the same household for at least two years.
To sponsor a step-parent, the marriage that created the step-relationship must have occurred prior to the child's 18th birthday.
The other concerns and procedures are as described above.