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Green Card Qualification Quick Guide

There is a general idea these days of what a Green Card is. In many cases the general conception of a Green Card is that it is some kind of permission to live and work in the United States that immigrants get if they marry an American citizen. Even though that premise may be considered as essentially true, a Green Card is a lot more than that and the way in which how you can get it are a lot broader, and Thomas and Thomas LLC prepared the following Green Card Qualification Quick Guide to help you along.

First of all, a green card identifies its holder as a U.S. permanent resident, with rights to enter, exit, work, and live in the United States for their entire life—and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. But before you can even think about applying for U.S. permanent residence, make sure you’re eligible to get a Green Card under one of the following categories.

1. Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

Immediate relatives are at the top of the list when it comes to qualifying for green cards and receiving them quickly. This category includes:

  • spouses of U.S. citizens, including recent widows and widowers; also including same-sex spouses, if the marriage is considered legally valid in the state or country where it took place
  • unmarried people under age 21 with at least one U.S. citizen parent
  • parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen son or daughter is at least age 21
  • stepchildren and stepparents of U.S. citizens, if the marriage creating the stepparent/stepchild relationship took place before the child’s 18th birthday, and
  • adopted children of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, if the adoption took place before the child reached age 16 and other conditions are met.

An unlimited number of green cards are available for immediate relatives whose U.S. citizen relatives petition for them—applicants can get a green card as soon as they get through the paperwork and application process.

2. Other Family Members

Certain family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents are also eligible for green cards—but not right away. They fall into the “preference categories” listed below, meaning that only a certain number of them (480,000) will receive green cards each year. The system is first come, first served—the earlier the U.S. citizen or permanent resident turns in a visa petition, the sooner the immigrant can apply for a green card.

You can’t predict the wait time with any certainty, because it always changes. Wait times depend on the category of visa you’re asking for, the country you are from, how many other people from your country are asking for your type of visa, and the workload at the immigration agencies.

  • Family First Preference (“F1”). Unmarried adults, age 21 or older, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Family Second Preference: (“F2A”). Spouses and unmarried children of a green card holder, so long as the children are younger than age 21. (“F2B”): Unmarried children age 21 or older of a green card holder.
  • Family Third Preference (“F3”). Married people, any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Family Fourth Preference (“F4”). Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the citizen is age 21 or older.

Because of high demand, the waits for people from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines tend to be particularly long.

3. Preferred Employees and Workers

A total of 140,000 green cards are offered each year to people whose job skills are needed in the U.S. market. In most cases, a job offer is also required, and the employer must prove that it has recruited for the job and not found any willing, able, qualified U.S. workers to hire instead of the immigrant. Because of annual limits, this is a “preference category,” and applicants often wait years for an available green card. Here are the subcategories:

Employment First Preference. Priority workers, including:

  • persons of extraordinary ability in the arts, the sciences, education, business, or athletics
  • outstanding professors and researchers, and
  • managers and executives of multinational companies.

Employment Second Preference. Professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability.

Employment Third Preference. Professionals and skilled or unskilled workers.

Employment Fourth Preference. Religious workers and miscellaneous categories of workers and other “special immigrants” (described below).

Employment Fifth Preference. Investors willing to put $1 million into a U.S. business—or $500,000 if the business is in an economically depressed area. The business must employ at least ten workers.

4. Green Card Lotteries: Ethnic Diversity

A certain number of green cards (currently 50,000) are made available to people from countries that in recent years have sent the fewest immigrants to the United States. In recent years, due to the high number of immigrants from certain countries, people from these particular places have not been allowed to participate on the Green Card Lottery, in order to stimulate Ethnic Diversity.

5. Special Immigrants

Occasionally, laws are passed making green cards available to people in special situations, such as young people who are under the care of a juvenile court, international broadcasters, and retired employees of the U.S. government abroad.

6. Refuge and Asylum

The U.S. government offers refuge to people who fear, or have experienced, persecution in their home country. A person still outside the U.S. would apply to be a refugee; a person already at the U.S. border or (better yet) inside the U.S. would apply for asylum.

The persecution must be based on the person’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. If you are fleeing only poverty or random violence, you do not qualify in either category.

One year after having been granted asylum or refugee status, you can submit an application to adjust status (get a green card). Refugees are, in fact, required by law to wait no longer than one year after receiving their status and having been physically present in the U.S. to apply for the green card. Asylees can wait as long as they want to apply, though earlier is better — your asylee status can be taken away if conditions in your home country change and the U.S. government decides it’s safe for you to return there.

7. Amnesty and Special Agricultural Worker Status

Years ago, a green card based on “amnesty” was offered to people who had been living in the United States illegally since January 1, 1982. There was a similar amnesty for laborers who worked in the fields for at least 90 days between May 1, 1985 and May 1, 1986. Although the application deadlines have long since passed, certain class action lawsuits mean that some applications haven’t yet been decided on. See an attorney if you should have qualified.

In 1997, Congress added an amnesty for Nicaraguans and Cubans, called the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA). Some provisions also benefit Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Eastern Europeans. The deadline for filing applications has passed.

8. Long-Time Residents

The law allows certain people who have lived unlawfully (commonly called illegally) in the United States for more than ten years to request permanent residence as a defense in immigration court proceedings. This remedy is called “cancellation of removal.” You must also show that your spouse, parent, or children—who must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents—would face “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” if you were forced to leave. Consult a lawyer if you think you qualify. Do not go straight to USCIS—you could cause your own deportation (removal).

Another remedy called “registry” allows people who have lived in the United States continuously since January 1, 1972 to apply for a green card. You’ll need to show that you have good moral character and are not inadmissible. Your stay in the United States need not have been illegal—time spent on a visa counts.

9. Special Cases

Individual members of the U.S. Congress have, on occasion, intervened for humanitarian reasons in extraordinary cases, helping someone get permanent residence even if the law would not allow it.

Think you qualify? Get in touch with us and we can assist you with your options!

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Thomas & Thomas

Tri-State Area Immigration, Criminal Defense, Family and Injury Law Firm. Accessible, Responsive Legal Help at Your Service. We provide our clients with protection: legal, immigration and financial. If you need a criminal defense, personal injury, work injury, family or immigration attorney in the Tri-State area, we would like to speak with you. Any of these legal issues can threaten your freedoms and your livelihood. You need proactive, dedicated legal counsel to secure the best possible resolution to the problems you face. We speak Spanish, Portuguese and French.

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