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Who May Obtain a Green Card

A United States Permanent Resident Card, or green card (so named due to its original color) is an identification card that shows that the non-citizen cardholder is a permanent resident of the USA. The term "green card" can also be used to refer to the immigration process of becoming a permanent resident.

A green card proves that the permanent resident has been granted benefits, including permission to live and work in the USA. The cardholder must meet certain conditions and must file timely green card renewals in order to continue his or her permanent residency status. Otherwise, the green cardholder can be removed from the USA.

A non-citizen with a green card application in process can obtain two temporary permits. One is a temporary work permit called the Employment Authorization Document. This work permit allows the non-citizen to work legally in the USA, similar to a visa. The other temporary permit allows the non-citizen to travel and re-enter the country should he or she leave. Both of these are independent of any existing status that the non-citizen currently holds (like a visa).

Green cards are an essential tool for non-citizens who want to work and live in the USA. The application can be tedious, though, so be sure that you are eligible before you file an application to obtain a green card.

Categories of Those Eligible for Green Card Applications

1. Immediate relatives of US citizens

Relatives in the immediate family of U.S. citizens are eligible to file a green card application, so long as the citizen-relative petitions for them. These relatives have a pretty speedy green card process, and they can obtain a green card as soon as they file all of the paperwork.

The following relations qualify under this category, in no particular order:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens, including recent widows and widowers
  • Unmarried children under age 21 with at least one U.S. citizen parent
  • Parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is at least age 21
  • Stepchildren and stepparents of U.S. citizens, if the marriage creating the stepparent/stepchild relationship took place before the child's 18th birthday, and
  • Adopted children of U.S. citizens, if the adoption took place before the child reached age 16

2. Other family members of citizens and permanent residents

Extended family members are eligible to file a green card application, but it takes a bit longer than it does for the immediate relatives. Only 480,000 non-citizens are granted green cards under this category per year, and it is based on a first come, first served basis. So, the sooner the citizen relative turns in the petition, the sooner the non-citizen can file his or her green card application and obtain a green card. The wait in this category can be lengthy, varying from three to even twenty-four years.

This type of classification is called a "preference category" because these family members are classified and prioritized accordingly:

  • First Preference: Unmarried adults, age 21 or older, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Second Preference: Spouses and unmarried children of a permanent resident, so long as the children are younger than age 21; and unmarried children age 21 or older of a permanent resident.
  • Third Preference: Married people who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Fourth Preference: Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the citizen is age 21 or older.

3. Workers whose skills are needed in the USA

Non-citizens whose skills are needed in the USA may also file to obtain a green card. Like the extended family members, this classification also uses a preference category system. There are only 140,000 workers who are admitted each year, which is why the preference category system is used. Workers can, like the extended family members, expect to wait years before their green card application gains them permanent residency. Usually, the non-citizens must show proof that there is a job offer. In those cases, the employer must show that he or she recruited for the position in the USA and that there were no qualified US citizens who could fill the position.

Non-citizens who want to obtain a green card based on employment must wait for an immigrant visa number to become available according to the following preferences:

  • First Preference: Priority Workers. Priority workers include those with unique and advanced skills, education, or talents such as
    • those who excel in the arts, sciences, athletics, business, or education,
    • exceptional professors and researchers, and
    • supervisors and executives of global companies.
  • Second Preference: Professionals with extraordinary ability or advanced academic degrees
  • Third Preference: Skilled Workers, professionals, and other qualified workers
  • Fourth Preference: People in religious vocations and special immigrants including
    • religious workers of legitimate religious organizations
    • foreign medical graduates who have been in the USA since 1978
    • former Panama Canal Zone employees
    • foreign workers who were longtime employees of the U.S. government
    • retired officers or employees of certain international organizations who have lived in the USA for a certain period of time
    • non-citizen workers employed by the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong for at least three years
    • non-citizen children who have been declared dependent in juvenile courts in the United States
    • international broadcasting employees, and
    • certain members of the U.S. Armed Forces who enlisted overseas and have served for at least twelve years.
  • Fifth Preference: Investors wishing to invest at least a million dollars into a US business (or $500,000 in depressed economies). This investor must also have at least ten employees.

4. Green card lotteries that create ethnic diversity

Green card lotteries, whose purpose is to create ethnic diversity, make 50,000 green cards available to non-citizens from countries that have had the fewest immigrants come to the USA.

5. Asylum and refuge

"Asylum" is used to refer to the protection of those non-citizens who are already currently living in the USA; whereas, "refuge" is used to refer to the protection of those non-citizens who live outside the USA, and move to the USA for protection. Asylum and refuge are available to those non-citizens who fear that living in their native country would threaten their safety or subject them to persecution.

This persecution must be based on a protected category such as race, nationality, religion, political stance, or affiliation with a certain group. Fearing poverty or random violence does not qualify non-citizens for asylum or refuge. Both types of refugees are cared for by different U.S. organizations to ensure that the refugees begin a safe and successful life as permanent residents of the USA. Of the ten countries that routinely accept refugees, the USA has accepted twice as many as the other nine countries combined.

6. Special Cases

Sometimes, members of Congress have helped non-citizens obtain permanent residence where the law would not allow for it. These incidents have all been extraordinary cases that involved humanitarian reasons.

7. Amnesty

Amnesty is the basis for non-citizens, living in the USA illegally, to obtain a green card. Years ago, amnesty green cards were offered to those illegal non-citizens who had been living in the USA since January 1, 1985. Similarly, between May 1, 1985, and May 1, 1986, amnesty green cards were offered to field workers who had worked for at least ninety days. These deadlines have passed, but because the green card application process can be lengthy, there are still pending applications.  

8. Long-Time Residents

Long-time residents who have lived in the USA for more than ten years are allowed to request permanent residence. This typically happens in deportation court proceedings, where the non-citizen requests permanent residence as a defense. To do this, the non-citizen must show that his or her U.S. citizen children or spouse would face "extraordinary and exceptionally unusual hardship if the non-citizen were deported. If you think this could apply to you, consult a lawyer. Going to USCIS in order to ask about this is dangerous because they could deport you.

9. Registry

Non-citizens who have lived continuously in the USA since January 1, 1972, may apply to obtain a green card. The requirements include showing that you are of good moral character and are not inadmissible. All of your time in the USA qualifies, even if it was not legal or was on a visa.

More Questions about Who May Obtain a Green Card? Contact an Attorney

Since immigration laws have a big impact on your life if you're an immigrant, it's common to have questions. If you have questions about who can obtain a green card, or would like help applying for a green card, you should contact a local immigration attorney who can answer your questions and guide you through the process.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you with visa procedures.

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