U.S. Permanent Resident Card (Green Card)

The so-called Green Card is an identification card indicating the permanent resident status of an alien in the United States.   The Green card refers to an immigration process of becoming a permanent resident in the U.S. A valid green card proves that the holder who is a Lawful Permanent Resident (“LPR”) has been granted immigration benefits, including permission to reside and obtain employment in the U.S.  The holder must maintain permanent resident status, and may be removed from the U.S. if certain conditions are not maintained.

Green cards were previously granted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”). That agency has been absorbed into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) that is a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”).

An alien who has filed a green card application may obtain two permits while the case is pending. The first is a temporary work permit or the Employment Authorization Document (“EAD”), which allows the alien to take employment in the United States. The second is a temporary travel document or advance parole that allows the alien to re-enter the United States.  This typically is used when a person's green card application is in process and the person must leave the U.S. for emergency or business reasons.

Both permits confer benefits that are independent of any existing status granted to the alien. For example, the alien may previously have permission to work in the United States under an H1-B visa.

Methods of Immigration
U.S. immigration legislation in the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) provides that an alien may obtain permanent resident status only through the course of the following proceedings:

* immigration through a family member
* immigration through employment
* immigration through investment
* immigration through the Diversity Lottery
* immigration through the registry provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act

Immigration Eligibility

Category Eligibility
IR Immediate relative (spouses, minor children & parents) of U.S. citizens
(A U.S. citizen must be at least 21 years of age in order to sponsor his or her parents.)
F1 Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age or older) of U.S. citizens
F2A Spouses and minor children (under 21 year old) of lawful permanent residents
F2B Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age or older) of lawful permanent residents
F3 Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
F4 Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens
EB1 Priority workers. There are three groups: Foreign nationals with extraordinary ability in sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics OR Foreign nationals that are outstanding professors or researchers with at least three years’ experience in teaching or research and who are recognized internationally. OR Foreign nationals that are managers and executives subject to international transfer to the United States.
EB2 Professionals holding advanced degrees (Ph.D., master's degree, or at least 5 years of progressive post-baccalaureate experience) or persons of exceptional ability in sciences, arts, or business
EB3 Skilled workers, professionals, and other workers
EB4 Certain special immigrants -- ministers, religious workers, current or former U.S. government workers, etc.
EB5 Investors
Diversity Immigrant (DV)
Political Asylum

Immigration Application

An immigrant usually has to go through various steps to obtain permanent residency. The whole process may take several years depending on the type of immigrant category and the country of birth.

1. Immigrant Petition  
In the first step, USCIS approves the immigrant petition by a qualifying relative, an employer, or in infrequent cases, such as with an investor visa, the applicant himself. If a sibling is applying, she or he must have the same parents as the applicant.

2. Immigrant Visa Availability 
In the second step, unless the applicant is an "immediate relative", an immigrant visa number through the National Visa Center of the U.S. Department of State (“DOS”) must be available. A visa number may not be available even if the USCIS approves the petition because the amount of immigrant visa numbers is limited annually by quotas established in the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”). There are also additional limitations by country of birth.  As a result, most immigrants will face lengthy waiting lists. Those immigrants who are immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen (the “IR” immigrant category) i.e. spouses and children under 21 years of age, and parents of a US citizen who is 21 years of age or older, are not subject to these quotas and may proceed to the next step promptly as members of the IR immigrant category.

3. Immigrant Visa Adjudication 
In the third step, when an immigrant visa number becomes available, the applicant must either apply with USCIS to adjust their current status to permanent resident status or apply with the DOS for an immigrant visa at the nearest US consulate prior to entry into the U.S.

o Adjustment of Status (“AOS”) 
Adjustment of status is submitted to USCIS.  The USCIS conducts a series of background checks, including fingerprinting for FBI criminal background check and name checks and decides upon the application. When the adjustment of status application is approved, the alien may stay in the U.S. even if the original authorized stay period on Form I-94 has expired.   However, but he or she is not allowed to leave the country until the application is approved or rejected.  If the alien needs to leave the U.S. during this period, he or she may obtain travel documents at the USCIS with an Advance Parole.  If there is a potential risk that the applicant's work permit or visa will expire or become invalid (laid off by the employer and visa sponsor) or the applicant wants to start working in the United States, while he or she is waiting for the decision about his or her application to change status, he or she can file to obtain Employment Authorization Documents (“EAD”) and continue or start working legally in the United States.  In certain cases, the applicant may be interviewed at a USCIS office. If the application is approved, the alien becomes an LPR and the green card will be mailed to the alien's last known mailing address.

o Consulate Processing  
This is an alternative to AOS, but also requires completion of the immigrant visa petition.  If the applicant is outside of the USA or selects this option instead of AOS, he or she may obtain an appointment at the U.S. embassy or consulate in his or her home country, where a consular officer adjudicates the case. When the case is approved, an immigrant visa is issued by the U.S. embassy or consulate. The visa entitles the holder to travel to the U.S. as an immigrant. At the port of entry, the immigrant visa holder will be processed to obtain a permanent resident card and receives a stamp in his or her passport. The permanent resident card is mailed to his/her US address within several weeks.

Application Process for Family-Sponsored Visa

Green card holders and nuclear families

Green card holders married to non-U.S. citizens are unable to legally bring their spouses (or families) to join them in the U.S. The foreign spouse of a green card holder must wait for approval of an immigrant visa from the State Department before entering the U.S.  Due to the lengthy processing backlog, these visas may take up to five years to be approved.  In the interim, due to immigration intent, the spouse may not enter the United States on any other visas not even as a visitor. This puts LPR’s in a disadvantaged position.

On the other hand, visitors and non-immigrants coming to the U.S. on temporary visas for work, business, or study (including H1, L1, B, and F1 visas) may sponsor their dependent spouses to travel with them.  Formerly, U.S. citizens may sponsor their spouses to enter the U.S. in non-immigrant status and the spouse may convert to an immigrant status under the expired Legal Immigration and Family Equity Act of 2000 (the "LIFE Act").

The issue of LPR’s separated from their families for years is an well known problem.  Unification of families of LPR’s was may possible in the LIFE Act through the V Visa, however, the Act expired and is no longer available.  Bills HR1823 and HR4448 have been in the U.S. Congress.

Application for an Employment-based Visa
Many immigrants choose this approach.  It requires an employer to sponsor or petition the USCIS on behalf of the immigrant (the “alien beneficiary”) through a future job. The three-step process has more details for employment-based immigration applications.  When the process is complete, the alien is projected to take the certified job offered by the employer to verify his or her immigrant status.  The application is based upon the alien's employment with the company in the specified job.

Step 1. The Prerequisite Labor Certification

This constitutes the basis for the petition.

o Labor Certification 
The employer must establish that it needs to hire an alien for the specified position and that there is no qualified U.S. citizen or LPR available to fill that position as the basis for hiring the alien.  There are a number of requirements to prove this petition, including: proof of advertising for the specified job; skill requirements particular to the job; verification of the prevailing wage for a position; and the employer's ability to pay. This is currently done through an electronic system known as PERM.   The date when the labor certification application is filed is the applicant's priority date.  In some cases, for highly skilled foreign nationals (e.g. “employment based” EB1 and EB2 National Interest Waiver, e.g. researchers, athletes, artists or business executives) and "Schedule A" labor (nurses and physical therapists), this step is waived. This step is processed by the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”).

o Immigrant Petition  
The employer applies on the alien's behalf to obtain a visa number. The application is form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker,  and it is processed by the USCIS.  There are several employment-based immigrant categories under which the alien may apply.  These have strict requirements, but may offer reduced waiting times.  Many of the applications are processed under the EB3 category.  This process may take up to 6 months.   Many of the EB categories allow expedited or premium processing.

Step 2. Immigrant Visa Availability.

When the immigrant petition is approved by the USCIS, the petition is forwarded to the National Visa Center for visa allocation. Currently this step relates to the priority date concept.

Priority date           
The visa becomes available when the applicant's priority date is earlier than the cutoff date announced in the DOS Visa Bulletin or when the immigrant visa category the applicant is assigned to is stated as Current. A current assignment means that visa numbers are available to applicants in that particular immigrant category.  Petitions with priority dates earlier than the cutoff date may have visas available;  hence those applicants are eligible for adjudication. When the NVC determines that a visa number could be available for a particular immigrant petition, a visa is allocated to the applicant.

The NVC then sends a letter stating that the applicant may be eligible for adjustment of status and requiring the applicant to choose to adjust status with the USCIS directly or apply at the U.S. consulate abroad. The waiting period determines when the applicant may expect the immigration case to be adjudicated.  Due to quotas imposed on EB visa categories, there are more approved immigrant petitions than visas available under INA. High demand for visas has created a backlog of approved but unadjudicated cases. In addition, due to processing delays in DOS and USCIS systems, the visas available under the quota system are not all allocated by the DOS in a particular year to applicants. There is no quota carry-over to the next year so for many years visa quotas have not been fully used, thereby increasing the visa backlog.

Immigrant Visa Adjudication
When the NVC determines that an immigrant visa is available, the case may be adjudicated.  If the alien is already in the U.S., her or she must choose to finish the green card process via adjustment of status in the USA or via consulate processing abroad. If the alien is outside of the USA he or she must apply for an immigrant visa at the U.S. consulate. The USCIS does not allow an alien to pursue consulate processing and AOS concurrently. 

Prior to filing the Adjustment of Status form, the applicant must have a medical examination performed by a USCIS-approved doctor. The examination includes a blood test and specific immunizations, unless the applicant provides proof that the required immunizations were already done elsewhere. The doctor gives the applicant a sealed envelope containing a completed form which must be included with the application.

Adjustment of Status (Form I-485)
After the alien has a labor certification and has been allocated a visa number, the final step is to change his or her status to permanent residency. Adjustment of status is submitted to USCIS via the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.  Provided an immigrant visa number is available, the USCIS will allow concurrent filing: it will accept the Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker form and Adjustment of Status form in the same package or will accept the Adjustment of Status form even before the approval of the Immigrant Petition for
Alien Worker form.

Consulate Processing
This is an alternative to AOS and requires the immigrant visa petition to be completed. In the past, this process was faster than applying for AOS, so was sometimes used to circumvent long backlogs of over two years in some cases. However, due to recent efficiency improvements by the USCIS, it is not clear whether applying via consulate processing is faster than the normal AOS process. Consulate processing may be riskier because there is no or very little recourse for appeal if the officer denies the application.

Green card lottery
Every year, approximately 50,000 immigrant visas are made available through the Diversity Visa (DV) program, also known as the Green Card Lottery to people who were born in countries with low rates of immigration to the United States (i.e. fewer than 50,000 immigrants in the past five years). Applicants may qualify by country of birth, not by citizenship. A person who is selected under this lottery will be given the opportunity to apply for permanent residence. They can also file for their spouse and any unmarried children under the age of 21.

Obtaining U.S. Citizenship
A Lawful Permanent Resident can apply for American citizenship or naturalization after five years of residency. This period is shortened to three years if the person is married to a U.S. citizen or four years if permanent residency was received through political asylum. Lawful Permanent Residents may submit their applications for naturalization up to 90 days before meeting the residency requirement.

Citizens are entitled to more rights and obligations than permanent residents. Lawful Permanent Residents generally do not have the right to vote, the right to be elected in federal and state elections, the ability to bring family members to the United States (however permanent residents are allowed to sponsor certain family members) or eligibility for certain federal government jobs.  Permanent residents pay taxes on their worldwide income  as do U.S. citizens.  Certain conditions that may put a permanent resident in deportation proceedings do not apply to U.S. citizens.

Recent Developments
After a significant improvement in the cutoff priority dates in 2007, there was another improvement after years of backlog so that the EB preference categories became current (except “Other Workers”).

In May 2006, the United States Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 which would have substantially increased the available numbers of green cards and relieved many applicants who were waiting to file the Adjustment of Status application due to the backlog created by the Department of Labor (DOL) in the past.  However, the House of Representatives passed different legislation pertaining to legal immigration issues.

Neither bill became law because they failed to pass the conference committee. The end of the 109th Congress on January 3, 2007 constituted the demise of both bills.