Factors That Might Prevent You From Getting a Green Card

Although hundreds of thousands of people obtain U.S. green cards each year, many more who want them do not receive them, often due to their own mistakes or USCIS's.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you're a foreign-born person hoping to make your permanent home in the United States, then most likely you'll want a "green card." That's the identification card that U.S. lawful permanent residents carry. But obtaining U.S. permanent residence is not easy. Although hundreds of thousands of people do so each year, many more who want U.S. residence do not receive it. This might be because they:

  • do not meet the basic requirements for green card eligibility under U.S. immigration law
  • are technically eligible for it, but nevertheless barred by a separate ground of inadmissibility, or
  • couldn't deal with all the immigration application requirements.

Below, we'll discuss these issues further, and indicate how you might be able to overcome them in your quest for a U.S. green card.

Lack of Basic Eligibility for a U.S. Green Card

U.S. law offers several ways to qualify for a U.S. green card. For example:

  • Many foreign-born people obtain one through a close family member who is a U.S. lawful permanent resident or citizen, like a spouse, parent, or citizen child (over the age of 21).
  • Another way is to have a job or an offer of a job from a U.S. company, in which case your employer would sponsor you.
  • If you are an entrepreneur with at least $1,050,000 to invest in a U.S. business that creates jobs (or $800,000 if the investment will be made in a Targeted Employment Area (TEA)), you might also qualify for a green card (category EB-5).
  • Or, if you are fleeing persecution, you might apply to become a refugee or asylee, and then apply for permanent residency a year after obtaining your refugee or asylee status.

These are not the only ways to apply for a U.S. green card—but like all the eligibility categories, they are narrowly defined. There is no avenue to a green card, for example, for people who simply have friends in the U.S. who like and wish to sponsor them, or who can show that they would make good members of American society. You have to fit within one of the preexisting eligibility categories set by law.

Some people try to squeeze into a green card category that doesn't really fit them, for example by claiming to be the unmarried child of a lawful permanent resident when in fact they're already married, or by marrying a U.S. citizen whom they've paid to sponsor them. That can lead to big trouble, and of course denial of the green card; either immediately or after the person has settled in the United States. (See How Past Immigration or Criminal Fraud Might Lead to Future U.S. Visa Denial.)

The good news is, there are various obscure categories of green card not covered here. Also, various nonimmigrant (temporary) visas might allow you to spend time in the U.S., make connections here, and thus improve your chances of qualifying for a green card.

And if you are in the U.S. unlawfully and are arrested, there are various defenses to deportation you might present; some of which can actually lead to a green card.

Inadmissibility as a Factor Leading to Green Card Denial

No matter how neatly you fit into a category of eligibility for a U.S. green card, you must also show that you're not inadmissible to the United States—in other words, that you don't pose a danger to U.S. society on financial, health, security, immigration violation, or criminal grounds.

Perfectly ordinary people are found inadmissible. This isn't just something that happens to criminals or terrorists.

For example, if you conceal something on your immigration application, have tuberculosis, refuse to receive all the required vaccinations (including for COVID-19), have overstayed a visa by six months or more, or you and your family sponsor can't show enough income and assets to cover your household expenses in the United States, you might be found inadmissible.

A waiver (legal forgiveness) might be available in some cases, but these come with their own eligibility requirements (often, extreme hardship to family in the U.S.) and require extra documentation. Such waivers are not always granted. You can improve your chances by hiring an attorney who knows how to craft a persuasive argument, and can help you gather convincing documentation.

You are definitely facing a denial of your green card application if you have committed certain crimes, like aggravated felonies, drug crimes, or acts of terrorism.

Complications or Mistakes in the Immigration Application Process

Applying for a green card involves filling out and preparing a lot of paperwork. Sometimes people destroy their own claim by failing to fully follow the instructions or complete every required box on the forms, or submit the correct fees.

The U.S. immigration authorities will usually send things back for another try, or send a "Request for Evidence" (RFE), but this can lead to delays and even denials if the applicant doesn't get the right items submitted by the right time.

In some cases, inconsistencies in filling out the forms can lead the immigration authorities to conclude that the applicant is lying, or not credible.

The lesson is, obviously, to check and double check everything you submit, and always tell the truth; or consult with an attorney if you feel like the truth will only lead to a denial.

Getting Legal Help With Your Immigration Case

Applying for a green card isn't easy for anyone. The law is complicated, and the paperwork tough to deal with. You might wish to consult with an immigration attorney to get help and to learn what you can do to minimize the risk of your application being denied. Learn more about how much this might cost.

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