If you have close family members in the United States, they may be able to help you immigrate (receive U.S. lawful permanent resident, also known as a “green card”). Whether you will succeed at this depends first on what relation the U.S. family member is to you. The closer your relationship, the more rights you have under U.S. immigration law.
Your success at getting a U.S. green card through family also depends on whether your relative is a U.S. citizens or lawful permanent resident (green card holder). U.S. citizens can bring more distant relatives than green card holders can -- their parents and brothers and sisters, for example. Also, the U.S. citizens’ status means that their relatives are allowed, in many cases, to immigrate faster than lawful permanent residents’ relatives are.
Nobody, no matter how close the family relationship to someone in the U.S., goes straight from having no status to being an actual U.S. citizen. This status is reserved for people who have held a green card first -- with the exception, in some cases, of people who have U.S. citizen parents. See "How to Become a U.S. Citizen" for more information on this.
Key Features of Family-Based Green Cards
Here are some advantages and disadvantages to green cards obtained based on U.S. family relationships:
- Unlike with many other types of green cards, the applicant’s educational background or work experience do not make a difference to your eligibility.
- The primary applicant’s spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may also be eligible for green cards, as derivative, accompanying relatives.
- As with all green cards, yours can be taken away if you misuse it. For example, if you make your primary home outside the U.S., commit a crime, or neglect to tell the immigration authorities of your change of address, you may be placed into removal proceedings. However, if you successfully keep your green card for five years (or three years if you are married to and still living with a U.S. citizen all that time), you can apply for U.S. citizenship.
Eligibility Categories of Green Cards Through U.S. Relatives
You may qualify for a green card through relatives if you fall into one of the following categories:
- immediate relative of a U.S. citizen
- preference relative of a U.S. citizen or green card holder, or
- accompanying relative of someone in a preference category.
Who Qualifies as an Immediate Relative
Immediate relative status is the best you can hope for, because immediate relatives may immigrate to the U.S. in unlimited numbers. They are not controlled by the annual limits or quotas that affect the preference relative categories, which create years-long waits for a green card.
The following types of foreign-born people qualify as immediate relatives:
- Spouses of U.S. citizens. This includes couples who are legally married (regardless of where the marriage took place), as well widows and widowers of U.S. citizens if they were married to the U.S. citizen for at least two years and are applying for a green card within two years of the U.S. citizen’s death. For details on this category, see "Marriage-Based Visas and Green Cards."
- Unmarried children of a U.S. citizen, under the age of 21, and
- Parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is age 21 or older.
Stepparents and stepchildren qualify as immediate relatives if the marriage creating the parent/child relationship took place before the child’s 18th birthday. Parents and children related through adoption may also, in some cases, qualify as immediate relatives. For details, see these articles concerning "Adopting a Child From Overseas."
Who Qualifies as a Preference Relative
Preference relative status is also a useful way to obtain a U.S. green card, but not necessarily a fast one. Depending on demand, you will have to wait in line, possibly for many years or even decades, before claiming your green card.
You qualify as a preference relative if you fit one of the categories below:
- Family first preference. Unmarried children, any age (but presumably age 21 or older), of a U.S. citizen.
- Family second preference. This category is further divided into two subcategories. Subcategory 2A is for spouses and unmarried children (under 21 years old) of green card holders; and 2B is for unmarried sons and daughters of green card holders, who are already 21 years old or older.
- Family third preference. Married children of a U.S. citizen, any age.
- Family fourth preference. Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the U.S. citizen is at least 21 years old.
For details on what types of waits to expect in these categories, see "How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date to Become Current?"
Who Qualifies as an Accompanying Relative
In the preference categories, once a U.S. citizen or resident submits a visa petition for a foreign-born relative, that person’s spouse and children (unmarried, under the age of 21) will automatically be included in the immigration process (if they wish) as a so-called “derivative” beneficiary.
The U.S. petitioner needs only name them on the initial visa petition (Form I-130) to start the process for them. (Eventually, however, they will have to submit their own, independent applications for an immigrant visa or green card.)
This derivative benefit applies to:
- Family first preference cases, where a U.S. citizen is petitioning for an unmarried child age 21 or older.
- Family second preference cases, where a permanent resident petitions for a husband, wife, ord unmarried.
- Family third preference cases, where a U.S. citizen is petitioning for a married child.
- Family fourth preference cases, where a U.S. citizen at least 21 years old petitions for a sibling.
This benefit does not, however, apply to immediate relatives. So, for example, if a U.S. citizen petitions for a foreign-born husband or wife who has children, the citizen will need to separately petition for any children—which is possible only if they qualify as his or her stepchildren.