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Getting an Immigrant Visas and Green Cards

Getting a green card is not an easy process. First, in most cases you must have a sponsor, usually a relative or U.S. employer who wants to bring you to the United States. You must then convince the U.S. Government that you are eligible under one of the categories available for permanent residence. Once you have done that, you still don't get a green card. You must apply for an immigrant visa at the embassy or consulate in the country where you live.

The embassy or consulate will review your green card application, making sure you do not fall into any category of people who are excluded from the United States, thisis called being inadmissible. . Only then will you get an immigrant visa stamped into your passport. You must enter the United States within six months to claim your green card. If you do not act in time, the immigrant visa will expire and your right to a green card will be lost. If you are already in the United States when you apply for a green card you will not get an immigrant visa, and so will not have to deal with this deadline.

When you have a green card, you are required to make the United States your permanent home. If you don't, you risk losing your card. This does not mean your ability to travel in and out of the United States is limited. Freedom to travel as you choose is an important benefit of a green card. However, no matter how much you travel, you must maintain your permanent residence in the United States. It's safest not to stay away for more than six months.

All green cards issued since 1989 carry expiration dates of ten years from the date of issue. This does not mean that the residency itself expires in ten years, just that the card must be replaced. The requirement to renew green cards every ten years applies only to cards with expiration dates.

Green Card Categories

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has many categories for permanent residents. You must fit into one of those categories to be eligible for a green card. There are often preferences and quotas within categories.

1. Immediate Relatives

There is no quota limit on the number of green cards that can be issued to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Immediate relatives are defined as:

  • spouses of U.S. citizens, including recent widows and widowers
  • unmarried people under the age of 21 who have at least one U.S. citizen parent
  • parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is over the age of 21
  • stepchildren and stepparents, if the marriage creating the stepparent/stepchild relationship took place before the child's 18th birthday, and
  • parents and children related through adoption, if the adoption took place before the child reached the age of 16.

2. Preferences

Those who receive green cards under categories with quotas fall into one of several classifications called preferences. Although there are a number of preference categories, they actually cover only two general types of people:

  • certain family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and
  • people with job skills wanted by U.S. employers.

Preferences give priority to certain individuals over others who apply for green cards.

Group I: Family Preference Green Cards

Family first preference. Unmarried people, any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.

Family second preference. Section A: Spouses and unmarried children under age 21 of a green card holder. Section B: Unmarried children over age 21 of a green card holder.

Family third preference. Married people, any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.

Family fourth preference. Sisters and brothers, 21 years old or older, of U.S. citizens.

Group II: Employment Preference Green Cards

Employment first preference. Priority workers, including the following three groups:

  • persons of extraordinary ability in the arts, 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 various miscellaneous categories of workers and other individuals.

Employment fifth preference. Individual investors willing to invest $1 million in a U.S. business -- or $500,000 in economically depressed areas. The investor must also employ at least ten workers.

3. Ethnic Diversity: Green Card Lotteries

A certain number of green cards are given to people from countries that in recent years have sent the fewest immigrants to the United States. The purpose of this program is to ensure a varied ethnic mix among those who immigrate to America. The method used for distributing these green cards is a random selection by computer, so the program is popularly known as the green card lottery. 

4. Special Immigrants

Occasionally, laws are passed making green cards available to people in special situations. Groups singled out for these green cards are not included in the preference system and are referred to as special immigrants. The current special immigrant categories are:

  • religious workers for legitimate religious organizations
  • foreign medical graduates who have been in the United States since 1978
  • former employees of the Panama Canal Zone
  • foreign workers who were formerly longtime employees of the U.S. government
  • retired officers or employees of certain international organizations who have lived in the United States for a certain time, plus their spouses and unmarried children
  • foreign workers who have been employees of the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong for at least three years, and
  • foreign children who have been declared dependent in juvenile courts in the United States.

5. Refuge and Political Asylum

Every year, many people seek political asylum in America or try to get green cards as refugees. The two are often thought of as the same category, but there are some technical differences. A refugee receives permission to come to the United States with refugee status before actually arriving. Political asylum is granted only after someone has physically entered the United States, either as a nonimmigrant or an undocumented (illegal) alien. The qualifications for refugee status and political asylum are similar. You must fear political or religious persecution in your home country. If you are only fleeing poverty, you do not qualify in either category.

6. Temporary Protected Status

The INS may decide to give citizens of certain countries temporary safe haven in the United States when conditions in their homeland become dangerous. This is called Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS is similar to political asylum except that it is always temporary, and will never alone qualify you for a green card.

7. Amnesty

Congress added an amnesty for Nicaraguan and Cuban nationals in a 1997 bill called the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA). Some provisions also benefit Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Eastern Europeans.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) gave amnesty to aliens who had been living in the United States illegally since January 1, 1982 by making green cards available to them. The deadline for filing temporary residency applications as amnesty candidates was May 4, 1988, however, under certain circumstances late applications may still be accepted. If you believe you may be eligible for amnesty, check with an immigration attorney to see if you can still apply. Do not check first with an INS office because, if it turns out you don't qualify, you could inadvertently cause your own deportation.

8. Special Agricultural Workers

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 also contained an amnesty green card opportunity for agricultural laborers who worked in the fields for at least 90 days between May 1, 1985 and May 1, 1986. The filing deadline for these temporary residency applications was November 30, 1988. However, late applications may be accepted under certain circumstances. Check with an immigration attorney if you think you are eligible in this category because if you are not, you could be deported.

9. Long-Term Residents and Other Special Cases

The law also allows certain people who have lived illegally in the United States for more than ten years to obtain permanent legal residence. If you have been in the country illegally for more than ten years, you must show that your spouse or children -- who must be U.S. citizens -- would face "extraordinary and exceptionally unusual hardship" if you were forced to leave the country.

If you believe that you meet this requirement, you should consult a lawyer before going to the INS to make an application. If you don't fall clearly into this category, you may cause your own deportation by making yourself known to the authorities. In fact, this remedy is realistically only available to persons already in removal proceedings. The INS has no obligation to act on any other application, and it may sit in their files for years -- or until the law changes against you.

Finally, individual members of Congress have, on occasion, intervened for humanitarian reasons in extraordinary cases, helping an individual obtain permanent residence even if the law would not allow it.


There are no limits on the number of green cards that can be issued to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. For those who qualify in any other category, there are annual quotas. Quotas affect family and employment-based preference green cards, and can create long waiting periods. Green cards allocated annually to employment-based categories, including investors and special immigrants, number 140,000 worldwide. In the family categories, approximately 480,000 green cards can be issued each year.

Only 7% of all worldwide preference totals added together can be given to persons born in any one country. There are, therefore, two separate quotas: one for each country and for the entire world. This produces an odd result because when you multiply the number of countries in the world by seven (the percentage allowed to each country) you get a much larger total than 100. What this means from a practical standpoint is that the 7% allotment to each country is an allowable maximum, not a guaranteed number. Applicants from a single country that has not used up its 7% green card allotment can still be prevented from getting green cards if the worldwide quota has been exhausted.

In addition to the fixed worldwide totals, 55,000 extra green cards are given each year through the ethnic diversity or lottery category. Qualifying countries and the number of green cards available to each are determined each year according to a formula. 

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