Green Cards for Immediate Relatives

September 26, 2014 2:24 pm
by David Jakeman

This post will summarize how an immigrant may obtain a green card through his or her status as an immediate relative of a United States citizen. First, it will helpful to briefly review what exactly a green card is and how it can benefit an immigrant.

What is a green card and why should an immigrant even care?

A green card is an identification card, similar to a driver’s license, that evidences that its holder has been granted lawful permanently residency in the United States by immigration authorities. Immigrants who want to remain in the United States permanently—and legally—must obtain one. Unfortunately, doing so can be a difficult and time consuming process. For example, many of the categories for green card eligibility are subject to annual caps. Consequently, eligible immigrants may end up having to wait years before a green card becomes available.

Even though green card holders are not citizens, they are entitled to many of the rights that citizens enjoy. They can legally work, receive government-sponsored benefits, and are afforded constitutional rights. However, they can be deported if they commit certain crimes, including drug offenses. Also, after five years of legal permanent residence, most green card holders can qualify for U.S. citizenship, assuming they meet all the other requirements. Therefore, if an immigrant has the opportunity to obtain a green card, he should.

What is an immediate relative?

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, “immediate relatives” are defined as the “children, spouses, and parents of a citizen of the United States.” See INA § 201(b)(2)(A)(i). If the immediate relative is a parent of a U.S. citizen, the citizen must be at least 21 years old. If the application is being made for a child, the child must be under 21 years of age and unmarried (though children who are married or over 21 years old can still apply for a green card through other family-based preferences). Another blog post will examine in greater detail the expanded categories of children for purposes of immediate relatives, including children born out of wedlock, adopted children, and step-children.

Immediate relatives fit within a special category of family based immigration. Specifically, they are not subject to a numerical limit within the overall family-based immigration cap, which is statutorily set at 480,000 visas annually. Because visas are always currently available for immediate relatives, there is usually little delay in processing their status to lawful permanent residency (green card). Immediate relatives can apply for green cards while in the United States or while they are in a foreign country through what is called consular processing.