A permanent resident of the United States is an individual who has been granted the right to stay in the United States permanently. Lawful permanent resident status provides an individual the right to both live in the United States as well as work in the United States. However, a permanent resident is not a citizen of the United States and does not have the same privileges as United States citizens, such as the right to vote in elections.

An individual obtaining lawful permanent residence is an important step towards remaining permanently in the United States. An individual is required to obtain lawful permanent resident status prior to becoming a United States citizen. Once a non-resident individual obtains immigrant status, they may apply to adjust to permanent resident status.

Acquiring permanent resident status is the same as obtaining a green card. A foreign national can acquire a green card in a number of different ways. This process can be complex and lengthy, depending on several factors, including:

  • The individual’s country of origin;
  • Whether the individual has any immediate family members that are U.S. citizens and/or permanent residents; and/or
  • Whether they are employed in the United States.

What is a Green Card?

A green card, or permanent visa, is an immigration document that permits an individual to reside within the United States. Green cards are overseen by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS). An individual may qualify for a green card in different categories. Each category, however, has a limit, or quota, on the number of green cards issued for individuals who fall into that category. The categories include:

  • Immediate family members visas;
  • Marriage visas;
  • Work visas; and
  • Long term illegal residents.

Who Can Apply for a Green Card?

There are some common categories of foreign nationals that acquire green cards. These include:

  • Family sponsorship;
  • Employment;
  • Special immigrant;
  • Refugee/asylum;
  • Victims of human trafficking and other victims of crime; and/or
  • Miscellaneous.

A foreign national can be sponsored for a green card by a family member, spouse, and/or fiancé who is a United States citizen. This is known as family sponsorship. The categories of relatives that provide the quickest path to acquiring a green card include immediate relatives of United States citizens, such as:

  • Their spouses;
  • Their unmarried children under the age of 21; and/or
  • Their parents, if the sponsoring citizen is at least 21 years of age.

Immigration marriage laws permit foreign nationals to apply for a green card after marrying a United States citizen. Typically, individuals who are closely related take priority over other types of relationships. A spouse, children and/or parents of citizens, as described above, take first priority. Other relatives, including married children over 21, and siblings, will take longer to obtain a green card. A relative of a permanent resident will also have a longer waiting period than a relative of a United States citizen.

An individual may also obtain permanent resident status if they have certain employment-related skills that are valued in the United States. For example, individuals with special abilities in the following categories may be granted permanent residence status:

  • Arts; 
  • Sciences; 
  • Business;
  • Education; and 
  • Athletic fields.

Doctors and others with advanced degrees are more likely to get green cards as well. Some immigrant investors may also receive preference in the green card process.

The special immigrant category includes certain types of individuals, including:

  • Religious workers;
  • Certain juvenile immigrants;
  • International broadcasters; and/or
  • Others.

Individuals who fit into the refugee/asylum category typically must prove that they are fleeing harsh circumstances in their country of origin. A refugee is an individual who is outside their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the following:

  • Race;
  • Religion;
  • Nationality;
  • Political opinion; and/or
  • Membership in a certain social group.

Individuals who are victims of crime and/or human trafficking may seek a green card. Victims of human trafficking and other victims of crime include victims of abuse, rape, and/or other crimes that intend to injure and/or victimize innocent individuals. 

There are a variety of other miscellaneous categories in which individuals may fit that may permit them to apply for green cards. An immigration attorney can provide advice regarding all of the previously discussed categories.

What Does the Green Card Application Process Involve?

As noted above, a green card is issued based on preferences for certain categories of foreign nationals. There must be a green card available for which an individual may apply. An immediate relative of a United States citizen can always apply for a green card.

However, if an individual does not fall into this category, there may be a limited number of green cards available in a given year. For this reason, obtaining a green card can be an extremely long process, up to 10 years or more for individuals who do not fall into the highest preference categories. The number of visas is also limited per country. Therefore, even if an individual does qualify, if their country has reached the maximum limit of visa applicants, they must wait until the next year to apply. 

There are several steps an individual to follow when applying for a green card:

  • Determine their eligibility;
  • Submit an application;
  • Admissibility; and
  • The next steps.

In order to be eligible, an individual must fit into one of the categories of individuals who are permitted to file for green cards. In general, an individual must have a sponsor, such as an immediate relative who is a United States citizen, or an employer.

An individual must submit an application for permanent resident status and petitions for the request to be processed. If an individual is already in the United States legally, they may file for an adjustment of status. In their country of origin, they may file at the United States consulate and/or embassy in that country. They must also submit any additional required documentation.

Even if an individual meets the category requirement to be eligible, they may be unable to obtain lawful permanent resident status due to other factors. For example, if the individual has a criminal record in their country of origin, they may be deemed ineligible for a green card. 

After these steps, there may be additional steps the applicant is required to complete. This may include attending scheduled interviews and providing further documentation as required. 

Are There Alternatives to Getting a Green Card?

Yes, there are alternatives to getting a green card. One of the most common alternatives is the Green Card Diversity Lottery. This program provides up to 50,000 visas annually. These are meant to individuals from countries that have low rates of immigration to the United States. For this program, an application form is still required. As the name suggests, it is a game of chance, and an individual is not likely to obtain a green card in this manner, but it is possible.

Should I Consult an Immigration Lawyer for My Issue with My Green Card?

Yes, it is extremely important to consult with an immigration lawyer regarding any issue with your green card. The rules and regulations regarding the application process for a green card are complex. A lawyer can review your circumstances, assist you with any applications, and represent you during any court proceedings, if necessary. A lawyer can help the process run smoothly and avoid any mistakes and/or delays.