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Family-Based Immigration Overview

Under federal law, citizens and legal permanent residents can sponsor (or "petition" on behalf of) their family members for immigration visas or "green cards." Sponsorship based on certain family relationships avoids limitations on the number of visas released each year under other categories, but the more remote a family link, the fewer visas that are available annually. Below is more information on family-based immigration and the filing process.

Who May File, and Who May Be Sponsored?

In the eyes of U.S. immigration officials, not all family relationships are created equal. Some relationships receive higher priority than others, and some cannot form the basis for an application in the first place.

If you are a U.S. citizen, you can petition on behalf of

  • Your spouse, or your child under 21 years old.
  • Your parent (if you are at least 21 years old).
  • Your unmarried child over 21 years old, and their children.
  • Your married child of any age, and their children.
  • Your sibling and his or her spouses and children (if you are at least 21 years old).

If you are a U.S. permanent resident, you can petition on behalf of:

  • Your spouse, or your child under 21 years old.
  • Your unmarried child over 21 years old.

Priority for Family Members and Petitioners

The priority for the family members identified above is lower the further down the list they appear; additionally, petitions by U.S. citizens receive higher priority than those by permanent residents.

Temporary Fiancé(e) Visas

Temporary fiancée visas are also available for foreign nationals intending to marry an American.  Under this type of visa, the foreign national must apply for the visa and receive permission to travel to the U.S. for purposes of getting married. Once married, the foreign national must apply for permanent residence separate from the initial visa application.

The Family-Based Immigration Process

Immediate relatives (spouses and children under 21) experience the shortest waiting period. The law gives this category the greatest number of options and the quickest application review.  Other relatives are subject to waiting periods because only a set number of visas are allowed for those categories each year -- and there are always more visa applications than actual visas.  When a family-based visa application is approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service, or INS), a U.S. consular officer will issue the visa and the family member can travel to the United States.

In some instances, such as when a birth certificate has been lost or destroyed, the U.S. government must conduct a genetic test in order to confirm a familial relationship. See the U.S. Department of State's "DNA Relationship Testing Procedures" for details.    

For legal help with the family-based immigration process, contact an experienced immigration attorney near you.

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