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 What is a Green Card?

Otherwise known as a permanent resident card, a green card is a document that allows you to reside and work legally within the United States. Green cards are granted to a foreign individual after an application to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Green cards usually require sponsorship by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

You can apply for and receive a green card if you fit one of several categories, including the family relationship category. Generally speaking, the closer the familial connection, the stronger the likelihood you will be able to obtain your green card.

What is the Family Category for Green Cards?

You may be eligible for a green card based on your familial relationship with a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States. There are several subcategories under the family classification:

  • An immediate relative of a U.S. citizen;
  • Other family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents;
  • Fiance(e) of a U.S. citizen or their child;
  • Widower or widow of a U.S. citizen to whom you were married at the time your spouse died; and
  • Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) victim (abused spouse or minor child of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, or abused parent of a U.S. citizen).

A VAWA individual can self-petition directly for a green card. The other family category individuals require a sponsor at some point in the two-step process to apply for permanent residency.

How Can I Help Family Members Immigrate?

You can petition to bring family members to the United States by “sponsoring” them only if you are a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident green card holder.

How Long Must Relatives Wait?

Immediate relatives can get green cards without worrying about visa-availability waiting periods or numerical limits. There will be a wait of many months, however, while USCIS and the State Department process the applications.

Preference relatives typically have to wait for a number of years before being allowed to apply for their visa or green card.

Only a certain percentage of the green cards in the preference categories go to any one country each year. That means that if a particularly high number of people submit petitions for family from certain countries, as is often the case with India, Mexico, China, and the Philippines, their family members may end up waiting longer than others.

Because of annual limits on how many green card immigrant visas are given out and the unpredictability of how many people will submit petitions each year, no one can say how long each preference-category applicant will wait.

As a general rule, applicants in higher preference categories wait less time.

Who is an “Immediate Relative?”

Under U.S. immigration law, immediate relatives are identified as the following persons:

  • Spouse of a U.S. citizen;
  • Unmarried children under 21 years of age of a U.S. citizen; or
  • Parent of a U.S. citizen (who is 21 years of age or older).

If you are a widow/widower, there is a separate process that allows you to file for a green card. If you apply for a family-based green card but are currently outside of the United States, there is a separate process you will need to follow in your home country.

Who Are “Other Family Members”?

This category is also called the family preference category.

Family members are ranked in order of the priority that visas will be issued:

  • First priority goes to unmarried minor children of U.S. citizens;
  • Second priority category is further subdivided into two categories;
    • The first is for spouses and unmarried minor children of lawful permanent residents.
  • The second is for the adult unmarried children of lawful permanent residents.
  • Third priority goes to married children of U.S. citizens; and
  • Fourth priority goes to siblings of U.S. citizens (who are 21 years of age and older).

What Does It Mean To Be The Fiance(e) of a U.S. Citizen?

A U.S. citizen may sponsor their foreign national fiance(e) for a K-1 visa, allowing them to travel to the United States and seek permanent residency status. Within 90 days after being admitted as a K-1 nonimmigrant, the fiancé(e) must enter into a bona fide marriage with the U.S. citizen who filed the petition on their behalf.

Only after getting married to the U.S. citizen within the 90 day period can the foreign national spouse apply for a lawful permanent residence (adjustment of status).

How Do I Apply for a Green Card Under a Family Category?

There are different forms you must complete to petition for a green card. Those forms depend on which subcategory under the family category applies to you. You will be required to submit the applicable fee with your application.

If you are already in the U.S. on a valid visa, you can apply in the U.S. Otherwise, you must visit the U.S. consulate or embassy in your country to complete the application.

If a sponsor is required in your particular case, make sure the sponsor is aware of the proper form and has all the information and documentation required to complete the application on your behalf. It is important that you complete each step accurately and thoroughly to prevent your application from being delayed or denied.

The application for a green card generally involves a two-step process in the U.S. First, your sponsor files a form for petition on your behalf with the USCIS. The USCIS then will decide whether or not to approve the immigrant petition.

If the petition is approved and there is a visa available, you will then file an application to register or adjust your status to permanent residence. Thereafter, a biometric appointment is scheduled, and you will receive an in-person interview. A decision is then made on your application.

How to Start the Application Process

It’s your job as a U.S. citizen or green card holder to start the process. Your family member can’t enter the U.S. until both the petition and a number of subsequent applications have been approved.

Who Qualifies as an Accompanying Relative

In the preference categories, once a U.S. citizen or resident submits an I-130 petition for a foreign-born relative, that person’s spouse and children (unmarried, under the age of 21) will automatically be included in the immigration process as a “derivative” beneficiary.

The U.S. petitioner needs only name them on the I-130 to start the process for them. Eventually, they will have to submit their own independent applications for an immigrant visa or green card.
This derivative benefit applies to:

  • Family first preference cases: where a U.S. citizen is petitioning for an unmarried child age 21 or older.
  • Family second preference cases: where a permanent resident petitions for a husband, wife, or unmarried child.
  • Family third preference cases: where a U.S. citizen is petitioning for a married child.
  • Family fourth preference cases: where a U.S. citizen at least 21 years old petitions for a sibling. This category does not include biological siblings of someone who immigrated through adoption by a U.S. family.

This derivative benefit does not apply to immediate relatives. If a U.S. citizen petitions for a foreign-born husband or wife who has children, the citizen will need to separately petition for any children, which is possible only if they qualify as his or her stepchildren.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with a Family Green Card?

The green card application can be quite tricky. It can be further complicated if there are any reasons that you may be inadmissible (criminal, security, health, or other grounds) for permanent status even if you fit a family category.

Further, if you are uncertain whether your current immigration status might negatively influence your current residency status, then you should consult with an immigration attorney for help.


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