“How do I get a green card?” (and how does my relative or employee get one) is probably the question most frequently asked of American immigration lawyers. The answer, of course, depends on the foreign person’s circumstances, and can range from “You can’t” to “Here’s how, and it will be easy,” although usually the answer is more complex, varying widely in degree of difficulty and in range of opportunity. This post offers a general overview of the issues involved.
Roughly speaking, a U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident (or “LPR”) is someone who is not a citizen, but who has the legal right to live in the U.S. indefinitely, return to the U.S. after international travel (with several important limitations), and work in the U.S. without need for special permission. (“Green card” is the widely-used informal term for the identity document issued to LPRs.)
Becoming an LPR requires two steps. The first is to establish eligibility for LPR status. The second step, which sometimes can be taken simultaneously with the first, is to apply for LPR status.
By far the most common basis for LPR eligibility is the sponsorship of a U.S. relative or prospective employer. But many LPRs become eligible by other means. For example, investors can establish eligibility through job creation, refugees can do so after a grant of asylum, and others become eligible by “winning” the Diversity Visa lottery. Foreign nationals who demonstrate special achievement or ability in fields of endeavor ranging from business and science to arts and athletics thereby gain eligibility for LPR status. Other opportunities to establish LPR eligibility are available for people with certain other backgrounds and in other narrow circumstances. Becoming eligible for LPR status, whether though employer or family sponsorship or by many other, less common means, can be easy, monumentally challenging, or somewhere in between.
However they have done so, foreign nationals who have established eligibility for LPR status must then take the second step – they must apply for that status. Many LPR applications are made at U.S. embassies and consulates in foreign countries, through an application for an Immigrant Visa. Alternatively, in certain circumstances, people who already are in the U.S. can apply for LPR status without departing. Applications made inside the U.S. are usually adjudicated by Department of Homeland Security officials, but sometimes by the Department of Justice officials (when the applicant is in deportation proceedings). The LPR application process ranges from relatively simple to exceedingly complex, depending on dozens of variables.
Many LPRs become U.S. citizens (through the process of “naturalization”), but foreign nationals must attain the status of LPR before they naturalize (with one very narrow exception). And some LPRs live a lifetime in the U.S. without pursuing citizenship.
A good immigration attorney will work with you to determine whether one or more paths to U.S. permanent resident status are available to you (or your employee or relative). He or she will also furnish you with complete information about the paths, empowering you to identify the approach that best meets your needs and preferences, and offering advocacy as you take the steps toward LPR status.