Immigration & Naturalization - Green Card Smartguide
The United States government grants visas enabling citizens from other countries to enter the United States for various purposes. A citizen of another country who wishes to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis can apply for a special US visa called a "green card." A green card gives a person the status of legal permanent resident. This means that the person may enter and exit the United States, seek employment in the US, and study or expand a business here without giving up the citizenship of his/her native country.
The Application Process
Whether you choose to consult an attorney or decide to apply for a green card on your own, the application process is the same.
- Eligibility: First and foremost, you must be able to demonstrate that you are eligible for US immigration. The reason for your eligibility and the immigration status you seek will determine the types of documents that need to be filed and the details of the approval process that may apply to you.
- Immigrant Visa Petition: You must file an immigrant visa petition and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) must approve it. This petition usually asks for information detailing how and why you are eligible for a visa, biographical information, and medical information, etc.
- Immigrant Visa Number: After the USCIS approves your petition, the State Department will issue an immigrant visa number for you, even if you are already living in the US. You may not apply to become a legal permanent resident until you have been assigned an immigrant visa number.
- Permanent Resident Status: Once a visa number is assigned, if you are already living in the US, you may apply to adjust your status to that of a permanent resident. If you are outside of the US, you must go through your local US consulate to complete the processing.
How Can I Become Eligible for US Immigration?
There are several ways a person becomes eligible to enter the United States under immigrant status. He or she may be sponsored by a family member or employer, may participate in the diversity lottery program, may qualify as a refugee for asylum, or may invest in a new commercial enterprise in the US.
1. Sponsorship by a family member
The majority of green card recipients in the United States are related to a US citizen or current green card holder (approximately 66% in 2004). This means that the person seeking permanent resident status is either:
- an immediate family member of US citizen, or
- a close family member of a person who already has a green card or is a permanent US citizen. Close family members gain permanent resident status based on a preference system. People receiving green cards this way are called family preference lawful permanent residents (LPRs).
Sponsors must be able to prove that they can support their relatives at 125% of the federal poverty guidelines.
2. Employment-based sponsorship
In 2004, 16% of the people who received green cards were sponsored by their employer. Attaining permanent residency status through an employer is a multi-step process, where:
- the employer must successfully obtain labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor.
- the USCIS must approve a Petition for Alien Worker (Form I-140) for the person seeking to immigrate to the United States (the employer may act as the sponsor in this petition).
- the State Department must issue an immigrant visa number, even if the applicant is already living in the US. An alien may not apply to become a legal permanent resident until assigned an immigrant visa number
- once an immigrant visa number is assigned, an alien may apply to adjust to permanent residency status, thereby obtaining a green card.
As with family preference LPRs, employment-based sponsorship is based on a preference system.
3. Diversity visa lottery
Each year 50,000 green card visas are made available through the diversity lottery program. If a person receives such a visa, he or she may bring a spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 to the US with them.
To participate in the diversity lottery, a person must:
- be a citizen of another other country that has sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the US in the past 5 years, AND
- have a high school diploma (or equivalent) or work experience in an occupation that requires training or experience to perform.
4. Asylum and Refugee Status
A person may be eligible for a green card if he or she cannot return to his or her country for fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or membership in a particular social group. In addition, the US may provide relief from deportation to people from Burundi, El Salvador, Honduras, Liberia, Montserrat, Nicaragua, Somalia, and Sudan. If a person is granted asylum/refugee status, he or she may bring a spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 with them to the US.
5. Immigration through Investment
Under section 203(b)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(5), 10,000 immigrant visas are available each year to "aliens" who invest in a new commercial enterprise in the US. As with the diversity lottery and asylum/refugee programs, a person granted a visa as an "alien investor" may bring a spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 with them to the US.
In general terms, to be eligible for an investor visa (EB-5 visa) a foreign investor must:
- create, purchase and restructure, reorganize, or expand a business;
- invest at least $1,000,000 in the business (or at least $500,000 in a targeted employment area);
- benefit the US economy; and
- create full-time employment for 10 or more employees (or, in a troubled business, the investor must maintain the existing number of employees for at least two years).
Due to the specific requirements for this type of visa application, you will want to speak with an attorney about your business plan.
What Should I Expect At My First Meeting With An Immigration Attorney?
Most attorneys will want you to fill out a questionnaire requesting specific and personal information to aid them in understanding your situation. This form may be filled out prior to or just after your first meeting. While these questions may ask for information you feel uncomfortable disclosing (for example, whether you have a criminal record or are in the United States illegally) it is important that you answer truthfully and completely. The attorney needs this information to pinpoint any issues of concern as well as to properly advise you of the best course of action for your situation.
Below is a list of information you should prepare before your initial meeting with an immigration attorney. Using this worksheet will help you make sure you are not forgetting anything, and it will provide the attorney with quick access to the information he or she needs to evaluate your situation.
|Current contact information in US|
|Last address outside US|
|Social Security Number|
|Date and place of birth|
Current immigration information
Current employment information
Employment information for past 5 years
Complete educational history
Current martial information
Prior marital information
|Other Important Questions|
|Have you been convicted of crime in any country? (Be prepared to provide details)|
Have you claimed to be a US citizen or used another name for citizenship services in the US?
Have you ever been denied a US visa?
|Have you ever filed tax returns with the IRS?|
Have you ever had an Employment Authorization Card issued by the INS?
You will also need to provide information about your spouse, children or parents who wish to immigrate with you. Below are the common types of information you'll need:
- Family members' full names
- Their contact information
- Date and place of their births
- Their Social Security Numbers and/or alien numbers
- Their country/countries of citizenship
- Their immigration status and expiration date
- Their relationship to you
In addition, the immigration attorney will likely ask you to bring certain documents to the meeting. Consider making two copies of each, one for the attorney and one for your records. Remember to bring copies of the documents for each family member who intends to immigrate with you. The following checklist should help to ensure you don't forget anything.
- Birth certificates
- Social Security cards
- IRS tax returns
- Marriage certificates
- Visas/Other immigration paperwork
- Other important information (business documents, criminal records, divorce or adoption papers, etc.)
What to ask an immigration attorney
It is important that you have confidence in and are comfortable communicating with your attorney. You may need to speak with several different lawyers before finding a good fit. Ask questions when you meet with the attorney, keep track of his or her responses, and record your thoughts and impressions about the meeting. Below are a few questions you might consider asking an attorney. You may have more questions than what are listed here.
|1. How long have you handled immigration cases?|
|2. What percentage of your total practice is devoted to immigration work?|
|3. How many immigration cases do you handle in a year?|
|4. How often do you handle cases similar to mine?|
|5. How much time does it usually take to get a green card?|
|6. How much time do you think it will take me to get a green card?|
|7. Looking at the information I’ve given you, do you foresee problems that might limit my ability to get a green card?|
|8. What methods do you use to inform clients about the status of their case?|
|9. Are you available after hours?|
|10. Would you be working with other attorneys on my case?|
|11. How do you bill your clients?|
|12. Do you require a retainer fee?|
|13. Am I responsible for any expenses outside of your fee?|
|14. How much would it cost to represent me in this matter?|
|15. Are there things that I can do to lower my legal expenses?|
What If My Application for a Green Card is Denied?
While denial of your application for a green card may be disappointing, you have several opportunities to appeal the decision. Your immigration attorney will be able to advise you as to the best course of action. If you prefer to appeal on your own, your local US Consulate is a good resource to help you with the process. In either situation, the USCIS will send you a denial notice that:
- explains why your application was denied
- tells you which USCIS forms need to be filled out to file an appeal
- tells you with which government agency the forms need to be filed
- provides the date by which the appeal must be filed.
In most cases, the USCIS will be required to prove that the application was properly denied because information contained in your application was untrue.
If you are not currently living in the US, the notice you receive and the process you follow to file an appeal may be different.
Key Immigration Definitions
Alien — any person not a citizen or national of the United States.
Asylum — protection granted to refugees in the US, allowing them to stay in the US and eventually gain Legal Permanent Resident status.
Country of Citizenship — the country in which a person is born.
Deportation—the expulsion of an alien from the United States based on a violation of immigration laws. Also called "removal."
Family Preference LPR — a person seeking green card sponsorship from a family member who is either an LPR or a US Citizen. Family preference LPRs include:
- Any children of a US citizen who do NOT qualify as an immediate family member of that citizen
- A brother or sister of a US citizen
- A spouse of an LPR
- Unmarried children of an LPR
Green Card — A visa issued by the US government permitting a citizen of another country to live in the US permanently. A person with a green card has lawful permanent resident status in the US.
Immediate Family Member — A person's spouse, parents, and unmarried children under the age of 21.
Immigration and Nationality Act — An immigration law relating to the immigration, temporary admission, naturalization, and removal of aliens.
Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 — A law relating to legalization of aliens who have been continuously unlawfully present in the US since 1982, as well as the legalization of certain agricultural workers. The law also created sanctions for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers, and required increased enforcement at US borders.
Immigrant Visa Number — The number assigned to a green card applicant after the applicant's immigrant visa petition has been approved by the USCIS.
Immigrant Visa Petition — The petition and supporting documents submitted to and approved by the USCIS before a person may apply for permanent resident status in the US.
Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) — A person who is not a US Citizen but who permanently lives in the US. Also called a "green-card holder."
Refugee — A person of special humanitarian concern who has either been persecuted, or has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
Targeted Employment Area — An area that has experienced unemployment of at least 150% of the national average rate, or a rural area designated as such by the US Office of Management and Budget.
Troubled Business — A business that has been in existence for at least two years and has lost 20% of its net worth over the past 12 to 24 months.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — The bureau of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for the administration of immigration benefits and services, such as processing applications for residency and citizenship.
Visa — A document that permits a person to apply for entry into another country.
One of the most comprehensive legal resources on the internet. Provides extensive educational materials, court links, links to attorneys, and other helpful information related to all types of immigration law issues. Visit the website at
FindLaw’s LegalConnection is a free service that quickly matches you to immigration attorneys in your local area. Our step-by-step process is personal and confidential.
National Immigration Law Center
NILC protects and promotes the rights and opportunities of low-income immigrants. NILC conducts policy analysis and impact litigation and provides publications, technical advice, and trainings to a broad constituency of legal aid agencies, community groups, pro bono attorneys and members of the public.
National Network of Immigration and Refugee Rights
NNIRR is a national organization composed of local coalitions and immigrant, refugee, community, religious, civil rights and labor organizations and activists. It serves as a forum to share information and analysis, to educate communities and the general public, and to develop and coordinate plans of action on important immigrant and refugee issues. Call NNIRR at 510-465-1984. You can also write directly to NNIRR at 310-8th St., Ste. 303 Oakland, CA 94607, USA
US Citizenship and Immigration Services
The USCIS is responsible for the administration of immigration and naturalization processes and establishing immigration services policies and priorities. In addition, the USCIS provides assistance and materials about immigration services and benefits. Call USCIS at 800-375-5283.
US Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR)
Provides descriptions of EOIR units, including the Board of Immigration Appeals, Office of the Chief Immigration Judge, and Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer, as well as other information about immigration appeals.
*The information contained in these charts/graphs is published on the Department
of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics website.