How to Become a Legal Permanent Resident – Green Card Holder

There are a few ways to become a Legal Permanent Resident also know as Green Card holder. Depending on how you entered the United States or how you are planning to enter the U.S., the process can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a decade or more. We discuss the most common ways to get a Green Card below.

Determine Your Immigration Visa Preference Category

The first step in getting your Green Card is determining which Immigrant Visa Preference Category you fit in to and there are only a few. If you fit into the immediate relative or close family member visa category or the highly skilled worker immigration category, you stand the best chance of being admitted to the U.S. on a Green Card. Conversely, very few diversity lottery visas are granted each year, so your chances of entering the U.S. as a Legal Permanent Resident under the diversity lottery category are slim.

Immigration Categories and Speed

The immigration category that you fit into has a huge impact on the speed of attaining a green card. Some immigration categories put you at the head of the line which means that your wait for an immigrant visa number will be relatively short, but if you are in a not eligible under the immediate relative or another category with a short waitlist, you may be waiting for a Green Card for many years to come.

Immigrant Visa Categories and the Visa Bulletin

To understand how immigrant visa categories work, we need to look at the Visa Bulletin which is published by the U.S. Department of State monthly, shows the most current information on the availability of immigrant visa numbers.

U.S. immigration law imposes limits on the total number of immigrant visa numbers issued in each immigration category each year and the number that can be issued to immigrants born in any particular country. (To see the allocations, look at Section 203 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.) The Visa Bulletin breaks down these categories and their associated numerical limits in a relatively easy format to understand.

When you read the Visa Bulletin, you will see two main groupings:

  1. family-sponsored preferences and,
  2. employment-based preferences.

Family-Sponsored Preference Categories

For the family-based side of immigration, spouses of U.S. citizens, children of U.S. citizens under 21 years of age, and parents of U.S. citizens are not listed. This is because immediate family members are immediately eligible for immigrant visa numbers. Family-sponsored Preference Categories are First, Second, Third, and Fourth. The Visa Bulletin defines each category.

The Visa Bulletin shows a table with each family-based preference category and the cutoff dates for each. If you have a priority date that is on or before the cut-off date, you may apply for a visa. The date that your immigration petition is filed and accepted by United States Immigration and Customs Service (USCIS) is your priority date. So, if you check the Visa Bulletin, if your category shows a cut-off date of June 14, 2006, and your priority date is June 12, 2006, you may apply for a visa. However, if your priority date is June 15th, you would have to wait.

Immediate Relative Visas

Immediate relatives to a U.S. citizen or Legal Permanent Resident typically have the fastest path to a green card through the family-based immigration. The U.S. defines immediate relatives as children under 21, spouses, and parents of U.S. citizens. Immigrant visa numbers are immediately available for this category so the Visa Bulletin cut-offs do not apply. So, if you are an immigrant seeking permanent residence in the United States, your best bet is to through an immediate relative who is a U.S. citizen.

The next easier route to a Green Card is immediate relatives, spouses and under-21 children of U.S. permanent residents. Typically, this category will wait two years or less to get an immigrant visa number.

The longest wait for an immigrant visa number is usually for married adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and even longer for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. It can be decades for some in this category.

You can look at the current cut-off date on the Visa Bulletin and the current date to estimate how long the wait will be for your Green Card. For example: If today’s date is June 1, 2018, and the cut-off date for your preference category shows June 1,  2008, you can expect about an 8-year wait before you can apply for a visa.

If you are planning to petition for a family member to immigrate to the United States, you should contact our experienced immigration attorneys in North Carolina or Tustin, California. Immigration is complicated and difficult. Trying to navigate the immigration process on your own is just asking for additional costs, delays and maybe even a denial of the immigration petition. Our immigration attorneys will get it done right the first time, possibly saving you thousands of dollars and years of time.

Employment-Based Preference Categories

Employment-based preference categories are similar to the family-based categories. The Visa Bulletin shows the specific employment-based immigrant visa categories available under U.S. law and specifies cutoff dates for each category.

The biggest difference between family-based immigration and employment-based preference categories is that a U.S. employer will petition for you instead of a family member. The difficulty in qualifying for an employment-based immigration category typically corresponds to the educational or skill level of the category.  The higher the level of education or skill required of a category, the easier it is to immigrate here (with some exceptions). So, a highly educated scientist will likely have an easier time immigrating than someone with no education or special skill.

Employment-based immigration visas tend to have shorter wait times than family-based immigration petitions but the education, training, and documentation required for employment-based immigration visas require a lot of documentation for both the immigrant and the employer petitioner.

First Employment-Based Immigration Preference

The employment first preference category is for priority workers only. These are workers who are considered outstanding in their fields, such as internationally recognized artists, award-winning scientists or similar immigrants or executives or CEOs of multinational companies. Historically, there has been no wait to get a visa in the first preference category.

Second & Third Employment-Based Immigration Preference

The second and third employment-based immigration categories have lesser education requirements and may require the employer to demonstrate that they have attempted to fill their open positions with U.S. citizens and current legal permanent residents before sponsoring an immigrant for employment. The employer and the immigrant will be required to supply a lot of documentation and to meet many requirements. Historically, there has been no wait or a short wait in the second and third preference categories, except for persons born in China, Mexico, India, or the Philippines, who can wait a substantial number of years.

Fouth Employment-Based Immigration Preference

The fourth employment-based preference category is reserved for “special” immigrants, including certain kinds of religious workers as well as juveniles who are dependent on the family court system and may be placed foster families in the United States. There is usually no wait for this category but there are so many requirements for this category that you will want to consult with an experienced immigration attorney before considering going this route.

Fifth Employment-Based Immigration Preference

The fifth employment-based preference category is for foreign investors who will create jobs in the United States. Immigrants in this category must be able to invest between $500,000 to $1 million U.S. of their own personal assets into a business that will employ at least ten U.S. citizens or permanent residents on a full-time basis. If you qualify and can pass the high level of scrutiny of the USCIS, you will not likely have to wait unless you come from China.

Diversity Visa Immigration

The diversity immigrant visa (DV) program is a “lottery” for green cards. The program makes available 55,000 immigrant visas for immigrants from countries that have low numbers of permanent residence applications to the United States. To qualify, you must not have any known problems such as criminal activity, terrorism association, immigration violations or other disqualifying acts. Generally, if you meet the requirements and you are chosen in the lottery, there is no waiting period.

Contact an Experienced Tustin, CA Immigration Attorney

The immigration process is fraught with challenges. The average person finds the forms, rules, and requirements too difficult to navigate alone. That is why we recommend contacting our immigration attorneys for assistance. It is free to start and there is nothing to pay unless we can help you. Most undocumented immigrants think that they cannot qualify for a Green Card or another lawful status in the United States. However, in many cases, even undocumented immigrants can qualify for legal status with our help. Give us a call today.

More Information for Green Card Holders

LPRs or Legal Permanent Residents, also known as a green card holder, enjoy broad privileges in the U.S. They can work, buy a home, travel and even sponsor their families to come to the U.S. However, a legal permanent residency is not the same as citizenship. You can lose your privilege to live and work in the U.S. if you:

  1. Abandon your residency. If you travel out of the U.S. for more than six months at a time, you could become subject to removal proceedings and lose your green card. You don’t automatically lose your green card – but you could draw the attention of a customs official when traveling back into the U.S., or when applying for citizenship and be required to go before an immigration judge.
  2. Fail to notify USCIS (U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services) of a change in address. You are required to keep immigration officials informed of where you’re living.
  3. You commit certain crimes. Examples include:
    • Crimes involving immigration fraud, mispresenting yourself as a U.S. citizen, treason, espionage, etc.
    • Drug crimes, other than a single count of possession of a small amount of marijuana.
    • Becoming subject to a protective order, then violating that protective order.
    • Crimes of “moral turpitude”– this is subject to a lot of debate in immigration court but can include murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, theft or robbery, and fraud. This category can include misdemeanors.
    • Aggravated felonies – This depends on state criminal statutes but generally covers more serious crimes, such as those involving firearms.

The law hasn’t changed about how you might lose your residency. What has changed, under the Trump administration, is that ICE officials are casting a wide net for the deportation of immigrants, rather than prioritizing violent and dangerous immigrants. It’s possible that LPRs will face harsher scrutiny. Individual ICE officials may be more likely to place LPRs into removal proceedings than they were previously if they are subject to removal for the reasons above. For example, there was an isolated report of an LPR in Maine who was reporting to the courthouse to plead not guilty to a DUI (driving under the influence of drugs/alcohol) charge and he was detained by ICE because he had a record of multiple misdemeanors.

LPRs will generally have the right to go before an immigration judge and have their case heard when they are detained by ICE, rather than being immediately deported. If you are charged with a crime or have unresolved criminal issues in your past, it is vitally important to work with a criminal attorney who understands immigration law and the implications of various criminal pleas to your immigration status. At Diener Law, we have criminal and immigration attorneys with years of experience, ready to represent you.

LPRs and Travel

Can LPRs travel? Yes, but do not stay out of the country for more than 180 days.

Trump’s Travel Ban

A January 2017, an Executive Order by Trump barred noncitizens from Libya, Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Iran, Yemen and Iraq from entering the U.S. and caused several LPRs from those countries to be detained or barred entry at airports. The Trump administration scrapped that Executive Order after it was held up by multiple federal courts. In the second updated version of the travel ban, it does not include Iraq and does not apply to LPRs.

Public Benefits

Trump’s Executive Orders on immigration, also released in January 2017, state immigrants who “abuse public benefits” are a priority for removal. The impact of this Executive Order language is not entirely clear. LPRs generally qualify for many public benefits without negative consequences.

Other Tips for LPRs

  • Expect delays when traveling back into the U.S. There have been isolated reports of increased questioning and delays when immigrants, including LPRs, are traveling back and go through U.S. customs and border enforcement. Agents have broad discretion to search your phone and luggage, ask you questions, etc.
  • Carry your green card with you at all times and keep a photocopy in a safe place.
  • Make sure your green card doesn’t expire.

LPRs Applying for Citizenship Once They Qualify

If you qualify for citizenship you should apply! But be aware that applying for citizenship can draw attention to past serious criminal activity and immigration violations.