How the Child Status Protection Act (CSPA) Helps Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

Turning 21 is cause for concern when the beneficiary is the child of a U.S. lawful permanent resident, but the immigration law adds some legal protections.

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The Child Status Protection Act (CSPA) was enacted in 2002 to help young people who turned 21 years old before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the U.S. Department of State (DOS) approved their green card applications. Due to lengthy delays on the green card waitlist and standard USCIS and DOS processing times, even if a petition was filed for a child well before his or her 21st birthday, the child would “age out” if he or she turned 21 before the petition was approved. The “aging out” phenomenon meant that many young people with pending applications had to wait even longer – or in some instances, were no longer eligible for a green card.

This article will address how the CSPA affects immediate relative petitions by U.S. citizens for their children who were under age 21 at the time of filing. The rules for other family-based applicants and derivative beneficiaries of green cards under the CSPA are much trickier and are explained in Nolo’s article, “How the CSPA Helps Family-Based Preference Relatives or Derivative Beneficiaries”

Make Sure Your Child Isn’t Already a U.S. Citizen

If you are a U.S. citizen hoping to bring your child to the United States or legalize the child’s status here, you can save yourself a lot of effort by checking into whether your child is already a U.S. citizen. The rules for who may acquire U.S. citizenship through their parents have changed throughout the years and who will qualify for automatic citizenship depends on the child’s date of birth, the parent’s time spent in the U.S., and other factors. For more information on this, see “U.S. Citizenship Through Birth or Through Parents.”

How the CSPA Helps U.S. Citizens Bring Their Children to the U.S

A “child” is defined by U.S. immigration law as an unmarried person under the age of 21. Immigration law gives preference to U.S. citizens’ “immediate relatives” – namely, spouses and unmarried children under age 21. These immigrants are not subject to the statutory limits on the number of green cards that USCIS and DOS can issue each year, and therefore do not face long waits before a green card becomes available to them.

Before the CSPA, however, even U.S. citizens needed to file Form I-130 well in advance of their child’s 21stbirthday to ensure that he or she did not “age out” before USCIS got around to approving the application. Due to normal processing delays, aging out was unavoidable for many children of U.S. citizens. Now, as long as USCIS receives Form I-130 a day before your child turns 21, your child will be considered an “immediate relative” even if he or she is 21 or older when the petition is finally approved.

Who Qualifies as an Immediate Relative for CSPA Purposes

The CSPA covers all immediate relative visa petitions, even those filed before the CSPA was enacted on August 6, 2002. As long as USCIS made no final adjudication of Form I-130 prior to that date, the child has an unlimited amount of time to formally apply for a green card by filing either Form I-824, Application for Action on an Approved Application or Petition, or if the child is already legally in the U.S., Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.

CSPA Strategy for Immediate Relative Petitions

So as to avoid long waits, U.S. citizens hoping to bring their children to the U.S. to live permanently should file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, BEFORE the child gets married and BEFORE the child turns 21. By doing this, these children will not have to wait for an immigrant visa to become available. To learn more about the application process, see “Filling Out and Submitting Form I-130 for a Child.”

Be aware that even if your child is under 21 at the time you file Form I-130, if he or she gets married before receiving a green card, the visa petition will no longer be considered to be an “immediate relative” one. Unfortunately, your child’s marriage will trigger a significantly longer wait for a green card.

Permanent Residents Can Convert Children’s Petitions to Immediate Relative If They Naturalize

What if you are a permanent resident whose child is living abroad? Unfortunately, the minor children of green card holders are not considered to be “immediate relatives” under the CSPA. They face delays in receiving green cards if they were not included as derivatives at the time that you applied for permanent residence. To see the current processing times for these visa petitions in family-based preference category “F2A,” view the U.S. State Department’s Visa Bulletin.

Although the CSPA offers them some protection (as described in "How the CSPA Helps Family-Based Preference Relatives and Derivative Beneficiaries"), an even better approach would be if you can convert your immigrant visa petition to “immediate relative.” This is possible if you become a U.S. citizen before your Form I-130 is approved and your child is under age 21 when you receive your naturalization certificate. In this scenario, your child’s age will “freeze” on the date that you naturalize. For more on this, see “How Naturalizing Helps Your Foreign-Born Children Immigrate.”

Possibilities When U.S. Citizens’ Married Children Are Widowed or Divorced

U.S. citizens’ married children -- even if under age 21 -- are not considered “immediate relatives,” and are also processed as family-based preference category applicants. However, if the child’s marriage is terminated before he or she turns 21, you can convert the visa petition to immediate relative by notifying USCIS. These situations are rare, but not unheard of.

For example, let’s say you have a daughter who is 18, but she is married. If you file Form I-130 now, the visa petition is placed in the “F3” family-based preference category, and as of early 2014, you can expect a wait of ten to 20 years for a visa to become available. Two years pass and your daughter is now 20, but she has divorced and has an official divorce decree. You can take advantage of the “aging out” protections of the CSPA by notifying USCIS that she can now be considered an immediate relative. This is also true if your daughter’s husband dies before she reaches age 21.

Unfortunately, there are can be no derivative beneficiaries for immediate relative petitions, so if your daughter has her own child that she would like to bring to the U.S., that child cannot be included if you convert her petition.

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