If you've been granted conditional residence in the U.S. based on marriage, you will need to petition to convert to a permanent resident (green card holder) after two years. Depending on your situation, it can be a simple petition process, or may involve some legal hurdles. This article will address important considerations in the process, and offer some guidance on when it may be worth the cost of legal fees to hire an attorney.
Form I-751 is the immigration petition used by immigrants who received conditional resident status based on marriage to a U.S. citizen in order to convert into being permanent residents. It is also used by children of the immigrating spouse, for the same purpose. A conditional resident will have been given a green card, but one with a two-year expiration date on it.
The Form I-751 requires you to prove to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that you’re either still married or that, if the marriage ended, that you deserve to become a U.S. permanent resident for some other reason. You'll not only fill out the form, but attach various documents proving that you deserve permanent residence, and pay a processing fee.
Not every immigrant who marries a U.S. citizen starts out with conditional resident status: It’s only applied to immigrants who were married for less than two years when they were approved for U.S. residence. It creates a two-year testing period for new marriages, and is meant to help USCIS identify fraudulent marriage cases.
(Note: The expiration of an immigrant’s conditional resident status should not be confused with the expiration date that is on everyone's green card. That expiration date is normally ten years into the future. At the end of that time, the green card holder is still a lawful permanent resident – but needs to renew the actual green card proving his or her status, which is usually just a simple form.)
Form I-751 must be filed during the 90-day period before the expiration date shown on your conditional resident green card. Don’t forget to make a complete copy of your filled-out form, the attached documents, and your check or money order before mailing it, and to mail it by some method that gives you a receipt or other proof of mailing, in case it’s lost.
If you file the Form I-751 petition too early, before the 90-day period has begun, USCIS will send the whole package back to you. You’ll need to file again later, within the 90-day window.
If you file the Form I-751 late, after your conditional residence has expired, USCIS will revoke (cancel) your U.S. residence and may begin removal proceedings against you. However, don’t give up right away if you realize you’ve missed the deadline.
If you can show "good cause" for the late filing, and that the amount of time you were overdue was "reasonable" under the circumstances, USCIS may approve your late petition. You’ll definitely need a lawyer’s help with requesting that USCIS accept your late petition, especially with figuring out what documents to prepare and attach in order to prove that you deserve special treatment.
The standard way that an immigrant files Form I-751 is as a "joint petition" with a spouse. A joint petition basically says, "Look, we’re still together, our marriage is the real thing, please grant the permanent green card now."
However, even in cases where the original marriage was bona fide, various types of later events may make the immigrant unable to file a joint petition. That’s why the law created exceptions, including for cases where:
For any of the above exceptions, the immigrant can still use Form I-751, but would need to check off one of the boxes with letters ranging from “c” to “g” in “Part 2. Basis for Petition,” and supply additional documents proving that the claimed exception applies.
An attorney who is an expert on immigration matters can guide you through the process of completing your I-751 petition and help you collect documentary evidence of your relationship.
For example, if you’re filing a joint petition, you’d want to include such evidence as copies of bank statements from joint accounts, photos of you and your spouse together, and affidavits from people who know you as a couple. Legal help is useful in making sure you get this done correctly and on time.
If you’re requesting an exception, however, it will be especially important to get help from an experienced immigration lawyer. Legal fees for such services vary based on the specifics of your case, but you should be able to find a good lawyer that charges a reasonable flat fee. Don't risk your removal from the United States over a few hundred dollars in legal fees.