Marrying a Citizen of El Salvador? How to Get a Green Card for Your New Spouse

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If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from El Salvador, and you wish to sponsor your husband or wife for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence), keep reading for important legal and practical guidance.

(Warning: This is a general overview of how the U.S. immigration system works for most married couples. Your situation may present complications or qualify for exceptions; see an experienced attorney for a full analysis.)

Immigration Eligibility Based on Engagement or Marriage

We’ll start with a little background on U.S. immigration law and procedure. Getting married to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident gives noncitizens a direct path to U.S. immigration. Contrary to popular rumor, however, the foreign citizen does not immediately or automatically receive a green card or U.S. citizenship.

If you are a U.S. citizen and already married or soon to be, your new spouse is your "immediate relative" in legal lingo. He or she may receive a green card as soon as the two of you successfully complete the application process. That process, however, can take several months.

If you have not yet gotten married and your fiancé is still living in El Salvador, you can, if you are a U.S. citizen, petition for him or her to enter the U.S. on a K-1 visa in order to get married in the United States. After the wedding, your new spouse can apply for a green card, if desired. You can also choose to get married first in El Salvador or in another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa (the equivalent of a green card ) with which to enter the U.S.

If you are a U.S. lawful permanent resident, your Salvadoran spouse will be considered a "preference relative," in category 2A of the visa preference system. He or she can complete the process of applying for a green card (and enter the U.S.) only after a visa number has become available. Annual limits on the number of visas given out in category 2A create waits of many years. The application process itself adds more months to the process.

U.S. permanent residents (green card holders) cannot petition for fiancés. You will have to get married before proceeding with U.S. immigration.

Application Process for a Marriage-Based Green Card

The application process for a marriage-based green card involves multiple steps, most notably submitting forms and documents to and attending an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. The purpose is to prove to the U.S. government that:

  • the U.S. petitioner really is a citizen or permanent resident
  • the two of you have entered into a valid marriage (or plan to, if applying for a K-1 fiancé visa)
  • the marriage is bona fide (the real thing; not just a sham to get a green card), and
  • the immigrant is not inadmissible to the U.S. for medical, criminal, financial, or other reasons. (See "Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out" for details.)

You and your Salvadoran fiancé or spouse may, however, have more than one option as to where and exactly how to apply, as described below.

Procedures When Applying for a K-1 Fiancé Visa

If you and your intended (who lives outside the U.S.) have not yet married -- or have held an informal ceremony that does not count as an official marriage in the location where it was held -- a K-1 visa may be appropriate. It is a temporary, 90-day visa, which your fiancé can use to enter the U.S. in order to hold the wedding.

The U.S. citizen starts this process by filing a visa petition on Form I-129F with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After USCIS approves the I-129F, it will transfer the case to the U.S. consulate in San Salvador, El Salvador. Your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa through the consulate. This involves submitting forms and documents and attending an interview with a consular official. You, the petitioner, are allowed to attend this interview, but it’s not required.

After your marriage in the U.S., your new spouse can apply to USCIS for a green card, through a process called adjustment of status. The two of you will attend a green card interview at a local USCIS office. Upon approval, your spouse becomes a U.S. “conditional resident.” (Because you’ve in all likelihood been married for fewer than two years on this approval date, your spouse does not yet become “permanent resident” until two years later, after submitting a separate application.)

Procedures for Your Spouse to Come From El Salvador on an Immigrant Visa

If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in El Salvador, you will start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS. After USCIS approves the I-130, what happens next depends on your, the petitioner's status. If you are a U.S. citizen, your Salvadoran spouse can continue on with visa processing. If you are a permanent resident, your spouse must wait (an average of two years) until a visa is available in category 2A.

The next procedural step is for your spouse to go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse submits paperwork to, and attends an interview at, the U.S. consulate in San Salvador, El Salvador. (The U.S. petitioner may attend, but is not required to.)

Upon approval, your Salvadoran spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, at which time he or she becomes a U.S. lawful permanent or conditional resident. (If you’ve been married for fewer than two years on this entry date, your spouse becomes a “conditional resident,” which is almost like permanent residence except that you must apply to have it made permanent after two years.)

At Which U.S. Consulate in El Salvador the Interview Will Be Held

The U.S. consulate in San Salvador is the only U.S. diplomatic location that handles immigrant and fiancé (K-1) visas. You will be given instructions (and eventually, an appointment notice) when your case is transferred to the consulate in El Salvador, and can also check its website for information.

If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than El Salvador, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.

Procedures If Your Spouse Is Already in the U.S.

If your spouse entered the U.S. on a nonimmigrant visa (such as a fiancé, student, or tourist visa), and you are a U.S. citizen, he or she can most likely apply to adjust status in the United States. The main form for this is an I-485. The two of you will attend an interview at one of USCIS’s field offices.

Information about USCIS locations or service centers can be found at its website, www.uscis.gov.

Just be sure your spouse didn’t commit visa fraud by using the nonimmigrant visa specifically to enter the U.S. and apply for a green card – see “Risks of Entering the U.S. as a Tourist, Then Applying for Marriage- Based Green Card” for details.)

If, however, your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, or you are a permanent resident rather than a citizen and your spouse is in the U.S., your situation is more complicated than this article can address. You may have difficulty obtaining a green card for your spouse, though it is not necessarily impossible. See an immigration attorney for details or if you have any questions about whether you qualify to adjust status.

Entering Into a Legally Valid Marriage

No matter where you marry, you will need to obtain a certificate that convinces the U.S. immigration authorities that it was legally recognized in the state or country where it took place. Below are some tips on doing that.

Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in El Salvador

If you have married, or plan to get married in El Salvador, you will first need to look into that country's requirements for legal marriage.

According to information provided by the U.S. consulate there, the only "legal" Salvadoran marriages are civil, rather than religious ceremonies. (You can also hold a religious ceremony, if you wish, but it must be done after the civil ceremony.)

At a minimum, the U.S. citizen will need to prepare the following:

  • A copy of your birth certificate, issued within the 60 days leading up to the proposed date of the civil ceremony, and containing an Apostille Authority stamp from the state of issue.
  • A marriage license, which you will need to obtain from either a local public notary, mayor, or governor.

Obtaining a valid certificate of your marriage is critical for purposes of U.S. immigration. The U.S. government keeps track of what documents are considered legally valid from each country, El Salvador included, and will reject yours if it doesn't come from the proper source.

Check the State Department’s "Country Reciprocity Schedule" to get further details on what documents from El Salvador it considers valid. (Choose El Salvador from the menu, then scroll down the page to the section on “Marriage Certificates.”)

Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in the United States

If you will hold your wedding in the U.S., you need to follow the laws of the state where you marry. For a summary, see “Marriage Laws in Your State.” You will need to obtain a marriage certificate from a local government office. A church certificate, for example, is not enough.

by: , J.D.

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