Obtaining permanent residency in the U.S.

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The road to becoming an American citizen is paved with bureaucracy and long waits. The next best thing to citizenship is obtaining permanent resident status, i.e., a green card.

A green card (a.k.a. permanent resident card or alien registration card) holder can live in the U.S. indefinitely, work, enlist in the armed forces, or start a business. The only things a green card won't provide are the right to vote, receive government benefits, and protection from deportation. Once you obtain a green card, you can apply for citizenship after 5 years.

Family Affair

There are several ways to get a green card, but the easiest path is to have a relative sponsor you. The relative must be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, provide proof that you both are related, and prove that he or she is able to support you at 125% above the poverty line.

U.S. citizens may sponsor spouses or married or unmarried children. Foreign siblings and parents may be sponsored by an American citizen who is 21 or older. Permanent residents may sponsor a spouse or unmarried children. Sponsors should file an I-130, Petition for Alien Relative along with an Affidavit of Support.

After filing, the State Department will determine if an immigrant visa number is available to you. Once a number becomes available, you must apply to have it assigned. The immigrant visa number allows you to apply for permanent resident status. If you are outside the U.S. when a visa number becomes available, go to the nearest U.S. consulate to complete the paperwork.

Company Man

If you are a foreign national without U.S. family ties, your employer can sponsor you for a green card. Employer sponsorship is easier if you have extraordinary skills and talents that contribute to the national interest or benefit the United States. Physicians, scientists, artists, professors, and executives of multinational companies are examples of people whose exceptional abilities make it easier and faster to obtain green card approval.

If you don't fit into any exceptional category, you must obtain labor certification before applying for a green card. This certification is a Department of Labor official finding that there are no qualified Americans available to fill the position, and that hiring you will not adversely affect wages of workers in similar jobs. The employer must advertise the position both in-house and to the public. The salary offered must be comparable to that paid for similar positions in the area. You can request a certification by filing a application with the local state employment agency.

If labor certification is approved, your employer then applies for a green card classification on your behalf by filing Form I-140, Immigrant Petition, with a Regional Service Center of U.S. Immigration. Once the petition is approved, you may apply for interim travel and work authorization that allows you to start working immediately. Finally, to change your status to permanent resident, file Form I-485, along with the labor certification and Immigrant Petition with the bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. The whole process could last 2 years or more, but with the interim work authorization, you can start working right away.

Feeling Lucky?

Although there are over 8 million other names in the pot, you may win a green card in the government-sponsored U.S. Green Card Lottery. Each year, 50,000 people are randomly selected via computer to receive a green card. The purpose of this lottery is to help people from underrepresented countries have more chances to become legal U.S. residents.

To qualify, you must have at least a high school education, 12 years of elementary and secondary study or two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation requiring a minimum of two years training or experience.

Applicants register online and pay a small registration fee. Spouses seeking green cards can both register, doubling their chances. Winners are notified by mail and receive a free airline ticket from the U.S. Green Card Lottery.

Seeking Refuge

You may also be eligible for a green card if the government granted you asylum due to life threatening circumstances in your home country. Individuals granted asylum can apply for a green card after one year of residence in the U.S.

Long-time resident noncitizens may escape deportation proceedings and apply for a green card if they can prove their removal from the country would cause severe hardship to another U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

Don't Leave Home without It

Once you receive your green card, carry it with you at all times for identification purposes. While permanent resident status continues as long as you live in the U.S., your green card is valid for 10 years. You are required to renew it before the expiration date.

Immigration and Naturalization (INS) can revoke your green card if you are convicted of crimes including murder, terrorist activities, sexual assault, drug/gun trafficking, theft, and fraud.

Your card can also be revoked if you fail to maintain valid residency in the U.S. If you travel abroad for extended periods, be careful to maintain evidence that the U.S. is your home base. Filing tax returns, owing property, or having U.S. bank accounts are good proofs of residency. If your green card is revoked by an INS agent, you have the right to be heard before an immigration judge.

Permanent residents who will be out of the country longer than 6 months should apply for a Travel Document (Form I-131). This permit will allow re-entry into the U.S. If you will be out of the country for over 2 years or after the expiration of your green card or re-entry permit, apply for a special immigrant visa (SB-1) at a U.S. embassy or consulate abroad.

If you are one of the many people in the world looking to become an American citizen, a green card will be your best friend. Understanding what this card can do and how to obtain one is your first step towards becoming either a new American or a new American worker.