Paths to U.S. Permanent Resident Status

Qualifying for a green card to live in the United States can be a challenge. The law strictly set out categories of people eligible for green cards, and in some categories, limits the number of green cards that can be given out each year.

For most immigrants who wish to make their home in the United States, becoming a lawful permanent resident (LPR) is the first step. This status allows the person to live in the U.S. on a permanent basis, so long as he or she doesn't commit any crimes or other violations that would result in deportation (removal). Eventually, the LPR should be able to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Because of the color of the identity cards given to LPRs, another common word for permanent resident is "green card holder."

Qualifying for a green card to live in the United States can be a challenge. The law strictly set out categories of people eligible for green cards, and in some categories, limits the number of green cards that can be given out each year.

The application process is also usually lengthy and difficult. Below is a brief overview of the main categories of green cards.

Also realize that, no matter what category you might fall into, you can be denied a green card if you are found "inadmissible" to the United States. The grounds of inadmissibility found in the U.S. immigration laws are meant to protect the United States from anyone who is a perceived risk due to a criminal or terrorist background, past immigration violations, communicable health problems, inability to support themselves financially, and so on.

Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

One of the most widely used categories of green cards is immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Immediate relatives include:

  • spouses and recent widows and widowers of U.S. citizens
  • children (unmarried under age 21), stepchildren, and stepparents as long as the marriage occurred before the child was age 18, and
  • adopted children, as long as the adoption takes place before the age of 16.

There is no limit to the number of immediate relatives who can receive green cards each year.

Preference Relatives of U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents

A limited number of (480,000) green cards are given out to other relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, referred to as preference relatives. The result is long waits in most categories.

The green cards (otherwise known as immigrant visas) are given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so the earlier an intending immigrant's relative turns in the initial petition on Form I-130 to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the sooner the immigrant can apply for a green card.

The wait tends to range from three to 25 years. Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens tend to face the longest waits.

The following are the preferences in order:

  1. Unmarried children of a U.S. citizen who are age 21 or older
  2. Spouses and unmarried children of a green card holder (this includes two subcategories, 2A and 2B; children over age 21 are in category 2B, and wait longer than those in 2A).
  3. Married children of at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  4. Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the citizen is at least age 21.

See our section on Family Based Immigration for details on this path to a green card.

    Employees and Workers at U.S. Companies

    A total of 140,000 green cards are available each year for people whose job skills are needed in the U.S. job market and who offer skills which an employer cannot find among U.S. workers.

    In most cases, a job offer is required before the immigrant can seek a green card, and the employer needs to begin, and actively participate in the application process.

    In three categories, however, a job offer is not required. These include investors (fifth preference, described below); workers of "extraordinary ability" (a subcategory of the first preference priority workers category described below); and workers with "exceptional ability," a subcategory of the second preference category.

    Given the limited number of green cards available to workers, it can take many years to receive a green card through this process, depending on which preference category you're in.

    The following are the employment-based preferences in order:

    1. People of extraordinary ability in the arts, science, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors and researchers; and managers/executives of multinational companies.
    2. Professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability.
    3. Professional and skilled or unskilled workers.
    4. Religious workers and various miscellaneous categories of workers, as well as so-called "Special Immigrants" (described below).
    5. Investors willing to put $1 million into a U.S. business, or $500,000 in business that's in a locally depressed area. The investment in the business must create at least ten new jobs.

    Green Card Lottery: Diversity Visa

    There are 50,000 green cards available each year through the diversity visa, popularly referred to as the green card lottery. Only citizens of certain countries may apply. The countries on the list are those that have, in the past, sent the fewest numbers of immigrants to the United States.

    Applications are accepted online for one month, usually toward the end of the year. Applicants must also meet certain educational qualifications. The application process is free. No wonder millions of people apply each year, making the chances of winning quite slim.

    Also, even if you are one of the lucky few selected, realize that you'll be in a race with other winners to get the process done on time. Many people are left out by the end of each cycle, often because of the slow-moving government bureaucracy.

    Special Immigrants

    This category contains an odd mix of visa types, many of them too narrow to be useful to more than a few people. Special immigrants include:

    • Religious workers (clergy as well as other people in a "religious vocation," such as religious instructors, cantors, and workers in religious hospitals).
    • Foreign medical graduates who came to the U.S. before January 10, 1978 on an H or J visa and meet various other conditions.
    • Former international U.S. government workers.
    • Retired employees of international organizations.
    • Persons declared dependent on a juvenile court.
    • Servicepeople with 12 years' duty.

    Refuge and Political Asylum

    The U.S. government is legally required to offer refuge to people who have a fear of, or have experienced, persecution in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

    The government sets a different limit on refugee admissions (people who apply from overseas) each year. There is no limit on the number of people who can, from within the U.S., apply for asylum each year.

    Refugees and asylees can apply for a green card one year after receiving their status. See How to Get Asylum in The U.S. for information on eligibility and the application process.

    Long-Time Residents: Cancellation of Removal

    In some instances, people who have lived in the United States continuously for more than ten years, have good moral character, can show that their spouse or children are U.S. citizens and would face "extraordinary and exceptionally unusual hardship" if the foreign-born person were forced to leave the U.S., and have been placed in removal proceedings can request permanent residence from the judge.

    This is not something you can start an application for. You must already be in immigration court, fighting against efforts to remove you. It is a complicated process that's best handled by an immigration attorney.

    Getting Legal Help

    The above information is just a brief overview of who might be eligible for a U.S. green card. If you believe you might qualify, you'd do best to consult with an experienced immigration lawyer for a full personal analysis and an explanation of the details of the application process (which can be lengthy, complicated, and easy to do wrong).

    Walking into a U.S. immigration office or consulate is not a good strategy, as you may receive inadequate or even wrong information. And if you're in the U.S. illegally, walking into a U.S. immigration office could get you deported.

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