One way by which many become citizens of the United States is by first becoming a lawful permanent resident (LPR). This type of immigration status is more commonly known as a green card because the identification card traditionally has a green appearance. Green cardholders are entitled to remain in the United States indefinitely with limited rights as compared to those enjoyed by U.S. citizens. For example, green cardholders may serve in the military, but they may not vote in national elections or serve on a jury. Holders may also use their green card to obtain government identification, such as a driver’s license. However, adult green cardholders are required to carry their card with them at all times regardless of their possession of other forms of state identification or face the possibility of incarceration.
An immigration law known as the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) establishes these policies and designates green cardholders as immigrants with statutorily granted eligibility to become U.S. citizens after five years of living in the U.S. This is completely separate and distinct from the granting of an immigration visa, which entitles the holder to remain in the U.S. for a relatively shorter amount of predetermined time to achieve a specific purpose. Also, the holder of a visa must return to his or her home country upon expiration of his or her visa if the holder chooses not to renew. Only two-year green cardholders are subject to this requirement. Two-year green cards may not be renewed.
The green card process and visa applications are in the control of a U.S. government agency called the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Accordingly, all LPR applications must be submitted to and approved by the USCIS. LPR applicants may choose to hire an immigration attorney to represent them throughout the application process to ensure that the process is conducted thoroughly and fairly.
LPR eligibility can be based on several predetermined categories. Accordingly, LPRs may be granted if the applicant has family that is lawfully residing in the U.S. The specific types of families that qualify for this category are listed as immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen (spouse of a U.S. citizen, unmarried child under the age of 21 of a U.S. citizen, parent of a U.S. citizen who is at least 21 years old). LPRs may also be granted for a fiance (person who expressly intends to marry) of a U.S. citizen or the children thereof. This is also the case for a person who was married to a U.S. citizen at the time that his or her spouse becomes deceased.
Employment may also provide a sufficient basis for the granting of an LPR. These types of LPR applicants are designated as immigrant workers, and they are ranked in terms of first, second, or third preference based on which type of professional services are offered.
First preference is given to applicants who “have extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics, or are an outstanding professor or researcher, or are a multinational or executive who meets certain criteria.” Second preference workers are listed as being “… a member of a profession that requires an advanced degree, or having exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business, or seeking a national interest waiver.” Third preference workers are defined as “skilled worker[s](meaning your job requires a minimum of two years training or work experience), or [a] professional (meaning that your job requires at least a U.S. bachelor’s degree or a foreign equivalent and you are a member of the profession, or [a]n unskilled worker (meaning you will perform unskilled labor requiring less than two years of training or experience.”
LPR applications may also be granted to immigrant investors who “have invested or are actively in the process of investing at least $1 million (or $500,000 in a targeted employment area) in a new commercial enterprise in the U.S., which will create full-time positions for at least 10 qualifying employees.” These individual applications based on employment are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Other categories of LPR eligibility include special immigrants (religious workers, abused juveniles, Afghan or Iraqi nationals, international broadcasters, employees, and family members of international organizations), those who have been previously granted status as an asylee or refugee at least one year ago, victims of human trafficking and crime, and victims of abuse. There also exists a limited amount of other highly specific categories upon which LPR status may be granted. Applicants may be determined ineligible upon a finding that the applicant has committed certain types of crimes. This is particularly true in cases involving violent crimes and aggravated felonies (usually involving the use of a lethal weapon, e.g., robbery involving the use of a firearm).
Each of the types of LPR applications mentioned above may also require the filing of an immigrant petition (USCIS form to be completed by the U.S. employer that certifies that they are unable to find a U.S. citizen to perform the job being offered to the applicant) at the same time that the LPR application is submitted along with the applicable filing fees. This requirement is known as concurrent filing.
Upon a determination of eligibility, applicants who are present in the United States at the time of application for LPR status may begin the process by undergoing what is called an adjustment of status. Adjustment of status allows the applicant to obtain LPR status without returning to their country of origin. This process involves several steps that may or may not involve an interview and the presentation of evidence supporting the application to adjust before receiving a decision. For applicants who are not present in the U.S. or are otherwise not eligible to adjust status at the time of the application, a procedure known as consular processing must be utilized. Consular processing requires that the applicant be the beneficiary of an approved immigrant petition and that there is an immigrant visa number available to be assigned to the applicant.
Generally, to begin an application for LPR status, there must be a visa immediately available to the applicant. The waiting period (if any) for a visa will depend on which type of visa the applicant is seeking to attain. This is because certain types of categories of visa are readily available, while other types may be available less frequently. Thus, the processing of an LPR may take seven to 33 months or longer, depending on current demand. Once an immigrant has applied for or obtained a green card, their right to travel outside the U.S. may be restricted. The immigrant seeking to travel internationally may apply for several types of authorizations known as travel documents. The four main types of travel documents are advance parole, refugee travel, re-entry permit, and carrier documentation. Exceptions may also be made for emergencies.
The majority of LPR applicants will be required to undergo a medical examination depending on the type of immigration benefit the applicant is seeking. The stated purpose of the exam is “… to protect the health of the United States population.” Such exams are conducted by doctors who have been approved by the USCIS (also known as civil surgeons). Applicants will be screened for certain types of diseases of public health significance, physical or mental disorders associated with harmful behavior, drug abuse or addiction, vaccine administration, and various other medical conditions that may or may not disqualify the applicant from LPR eligibility.
If the applicant intends to work or earn money through employment in the U.S., his or her employer must sign a contract that pledges his or her intent to provide financial support to the immigrant applicant while in the U.S. This employer is referred to as a sponsor in these types of situations. Most often, the sponsor is the party who files the immigrant petition on behalf of the applicant. Such a promise is called an affidavit of support, and it is required to be submitted to the USCIS in all cases that involve immigrant employment in the U.S. Additionally, LPR applicants must demonstrate that they are unlikely to become dependent on public assistance to sustain themselves while living in the U.S. This process is known as a public charge, and applicants who are determined to have a strong likelihood of requiring public assistance may be determined to be ineligible for LPR status.
These represent the initial steps to be aware of if you are considering an application or have already applied for a green card. The U.S. Senate and Supreme Court frequently make new determinations relating to immigration law, so the green card process can be quite complex and confusing. This has been particularly true under the current Trump administration. So it may be to your benefit to consult with an experienced immigration specialist who can guide you through the process and potentially make the process much more manageable.