Whether you're a U.S. citizen, U.S. permanent resident, or intending immigrant, you may have questions about whether trying to get U.S. residence (a green card) for the foreign-born relative is a good idea -- and whether it will really work. Such questions might include:
Below, we briefly address these. But realize that immigration law is very complicated, with lots of exceptions and special situations that depend on personal situations and which country the immigrant is coming from.
U.S. citizens and permanent residents can petition to help the following people immigrate. Those marked "IR" are immediate relatives, for whom an unlimited number of visas are available each year, meaning no waiting list for them. Everyone else named below is what's known as a "preference relative," meaning they are subject to visa limits and therefore long waits until a visa becomes available to them.
See below for more on how long the preference relatives are likely to wait until a visa becomes available. See our overview article for more on eligibility rules for family based visas and green cards.
To be a petitioner, you must:
People who want to immigrate to the United States must also meet certain requirements. You must not only meet the basic eligibility criteria of having a U.S. citizen or permanent resident relative who wants to petition for you, you must also be able to show that you are not "inadmissible" to the United States. Regardless of your family relationships, you can be denied a visa and green card due to inadmissibility, the idea being to protect the health, safety, and well-being of people within the United States.
Common ways that people become inadmissible include their:
The U.S. based petitioner will need to start the process (in most cases) by filing a visa petition on Form I-130. (In immediate relative cases, where the immigrant is already in the United States, the I-130 may be filed at the same time as the remaining parts of the application process that's described next.) Also, if the immigrant entered on a fiance visa and then got married, he or she can apply to adjust status (get a green card) without a Form I-130.
After the I-130 is approved (which usually takes at least a few months), what happens depends on the immigrant's family relationship and thus visa category. Immediate relatives can proceed to the next major step in the process, in which they file the application for an immigrant visa (if coming from overseas) or for adjustment of status (if in the United States and allowed to apply without leaving again). After filing their paperwork, they'll be called for an interview, usually after several weeks or months. The visa or green card decision is typically made at that interview.
If the immigrant is in a preference category, then he or she must wait until a visa is available, as determined by the person's "priority date" (the date on which the visa petition was filed.) Only then can the immigrant proceed to apply for an immigrant visa or adjustment of status. The waits can range from two to 24 years, with the longest waits usually faced by brothers and sisters (siblings) of U.S. citizens.
There's an important caution to be made here: Having an approved I-130 does not give an immigrant any rights to come to or continue living in the United States. It's only the first step in an often long and potentially costly process.
Within the preference categories, also realize the wait can be even longer for people from countries where a lot of people are applying for U.S. immigration, due to per-country limits. The longest waits tend to be for people from Mexico, India, the Philippines, and China.
Anyone considering petitioning for a family member can make the process much easier by consulting with an immigration attorney. The attorney can provide a full legal analysis of the case so that the handling of Form I-130, and subsequent steps in the immigration process, go smoothly.