Green Cards: Membership Has Its Privileges

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If getting to live in the United States is a dream, then getting a green card is like winning the lottery. In fact, to qualify for a green card, you have to participate in a lottery. If you win this lottery, you don't get a million dollars. However, you do get a number of benefits that come along with living in the United States.

A green card (or Alien Registration Receipt Card) gives you the legal right to live, work and study permanently in the U.S. The best part is that it does not affect your residency in another country. You can maintain your foreign citizenship while entering and leaving the U.S. freely. Or, you can apply for U.S. citizenship after living here for three or five years. The length of time depends on the type of visa you have.

Work, School and Social Welfare

Green card holders are entitled to a number of benefits. As a green card holder, you can work in both the private and public sectors. You can start a business or join the armed forces. You can attend school in the United States and may even be eligible for lower study fees, simply due to your green card status. You can qualify for retirement or Social Security benefits, and finally, many social welfare benefits also accompany residency, like health insurance.

Just like every other American over 18, you have the right to vote. The only difference between you and a naturalized citizen is that you can only vote in local and state elections that don't require you to be a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, green card holders are prohibited from voting in federal elections. In other words, you have no say in who will become the next U.S. President in 2008.

With the permanent visa, you are protected by all the laws of the United States, your state of residence and any local jurisdiction. On top of that, if your rights are violated, you have access to the court system.

Family is Welcome

For many, the most important perk that comes with a green card is the right to apply for green cards for other family members. If your spouse and children were with you when you applied for permanent residency, they may be eligible for green cards through you; in other words, they won't have to file separate petition

No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

However, winning the green card lottery is not a free ride. With all the rights come responsibilities. To live permanently in the United States, you must not commit any acts that will make you removable under immigration law. In today's environment, it means not consorting with any prohibited persons or engaging in activity that could pose a security risk to the country. Because U.S. law protects you, you are also subject to the law. This means you must obey all federal, state, and local laws. Being convicted of a crime could lead to your card being taken away. From there, you can be removed.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, you are expected to support a democratic government. Simply put, you cannot engage in any attempts to overthrow the American government. There is no more effective way to get kicked out of the country than being caught in an act of treason.

Some other responsibilities, you must file income tax returns and report your income to the Internal Revenue Service. No one gets past the IRS, no one. If you are a male between the ages of 18 and 25, you have to register with the selective service. That's right, Uncle Sam wants you too.

Hang Around

In addition, leaving the country and staying away for an extended period can be construed as abandoning your residency. If you stay out of the country for more than two years without applying for a returning resident visa, you may lose your benefits. If you move to another country with the intent to stay there, you lose the green card. Determining exactly under what circumstances you can lose your green card can be tricky.

You can also find clarifications about your rights and responsibilities as a resident, the lottery and warnings about potential green card scams online. The information is on the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services website at www.uscis.gov.