Immigrant visas (i.e. green card or permanent residency) may be acquired through family-based or employment-based preference categories and also through the annual Diversity Visa Lottery. Permanent residency allows a person to work without any restrictions and to live in the United States on a permanent basis. Most individuals are "sponsored" by an employer ("employment-based immigrant visa") or by a family member ("family-based immigrant visa") in the United States. In certain cases, an individual can "self-petition" for a green card or permanent residency (i.e. file on your own behalf). Further, the United States holds an annual Diversity Visa Lottery ("DV Lottery") that grants 50,000 green cards through a randomized computer drawing. Other individuals may become permanent residents of the United States through refugee or asylum petitions or other humanitarian programs enacted by Congress and implemented by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service ("USCIS"). The green card application process can be very time consuming so it is important for individuals to maintain lawful non-immigrant status if they are applying from within the United States.
Family Based IVs: Immediate Relatives
Immediate Relatives (IR) include spouses of U.S. citizens, unmarried minor children of U.S. citizens, and parents of U.S. citizens age 21 or older. The benefit of immigrating as an immediate relative is that there is no cap, or quota, on the number of visas available each year.
The family preference system allows the following persons to immigrate:
Adult children (unmarried and married) of U.S. citizens;
Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens age 21 or older; and
Spouses and unmarried children (both minor and adult) of Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs)
The following are the family preference categories:
First: unmarried son or daughter (age 21 or over) of U.S. citizen parent
Second: F-2A: spouses or unmarried children (under 21) of LPR F-2B: unmarried sons or daughters age 21 and over of LPR
Third: married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
Fourth: brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, where citizen is at least age 21
A limited number of visas are available every year under the family preference system.
Legal immigration to the United States is controlled by numerical limitations called quotas, which are applied to the family-based category and to the overall number of legal immigrant (permanent resident) visas distributed per country, per year. Backlogs develop because there are more applicants in some countries and categories than there are visas. There are also the non-quota immigrants, such as immediate relatives, who are exempted from the yearly limitations.