When people talk about the easiest way to get a “green card,” they are usually referring to the fastest means someone can become a permanent resident in the United States. In the modern U.S. immigration framework, the wait for many green card applicants can be as long as ten years or more. For a few lucky persons, however, that wait may be as short as 15 days.
What makes the difference in these cases? A crucial concept called “immigrant visa preference categories.” U.S. immigration laws create specific preference categories under which foreign nationals might qualify for and be assigned a so-called "immigrant visa number." Immigrant visa numbers are, in essence, spots in the waiting line for a green card. Some categories are “easier” than others in that one category might have no delay in available immigrant visa numbers, while other categories might have a ten to 15 year wait for visa number availability.
If you are confused, don’t be. The immigrant visa categories are not difficult to understand. Let’s take a look at these categories.
Immigrant Visa Categories and the Visa Bulletin
To understand why the categories matter in making things easier to get a green card, we must take a look at something called the Visa Bulletin. This report is released monthly by the U.S. Department of State, which publishes the most up-to-date availability of immigrant visa numbers. It can be found at http://www.travel.state.gov/visa/bulletin/bulletin_1360.html.
U.S. immigration law defines specific categories under which immigrant visa numbers can be assigned. The law also limits the total number of immigrant visa numbers that are given out in each category per year, and the number that can be given out to persons born in a particular country. The Visa Bulletin breaks down these categories and their associated numerical caps in a relatively-easy format to understand.
If you look at the Visa Bulletin, you will see that immigrant visa numbers are broken down into two main groupings: family-sponsored Preferences and employment-based preferences. The Bulletin also lists a “diversity immigrant” category, which we will discuss below. Under each grouping, you will see that there are more specific subcategories.
Family-Sponsored Preference Categories
For the family-based side of immigration, you might notice that spouses of U.S. citizens, children of U.S. citizens under 21 years of age, and parents of U.S. citizens are not listed. That is because these specific family members are considered “immediate relatives.” Under current immigration law, immediate relatives are immediately eligible for immigrant visa numbers. More on this in a moment.
The categories listed under family-sponsored Preferences are First, Second, Third, and Fourth. Each category is defined in the Visa Bulletin. Unless otherwise noted, the word “children” refers to unmarried sons or daughters under the age of 21.
After the definitions for each category, the Visa Bulletin has a table listing each family-based preference category along with a series of "cutoff" dates. Only those would-be immigrants with a “priority date” on or before the cutoff date may apply for a visa. For family-based cases, the priority date is the date the petition to classify you as a potential immigrant was filed. (In certain circumstances where a petition was filed for you earlier, you might retain an earlier priority date.)
Let’s take an example, to help you understand what you see when looking at the Visa Bulletin. In the Visa Bulletin for August 2015, the table lists a cutoff date of November 1, 2007 for all worldwide areas (except the specific countries listed) for the first preference family-based category. As the Bulletin states, the first preference is for “unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.”
This means that for foreign nationals who are 21 or older, are not married, and are being sponsored for a green card by their U.S. citizen parent, U.S. immigration authorities are now processing cases that were begun by petitions filed on November 1, 2007 or earlier.
As you might have guessed, the preference category under which a foreign-national family member might qualify for an immigrant visa number, and eventual permanent residence, has a huge bearing on the time that foreign national must wait. Also, because of the high demand for immigrant visas from nationals of China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, foreign nationals from those nations have separate, and usually more delayed, cutoff dates.
In terms of the “easiest” path to a green card through the family-based immigration route, immediate relatives (children under 21, spouses, and parents) of U.S. citizens have the least difficult path. Immigrant visa numbers are immediately available to them, so the Visa Bulletin cutoff dates do not apply to them. If you are a foreign national seeking permanent residence and are lucky enough to have an immediate-relative relationship with a U.S. citizen, you will have access to the path of least resistance.
After immediate relatives, spouses and under-21 children of U.S. permanent residents have the next-shortest wait time as of the date of this article. Visas are becoming available to those spouses and children who applied less than two years ago.
Next, it may surprise you to learn that right now the adult unmarried sons and daughters of permanent residents are getting visas before the adult unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens who applied on the same date about seven years ago. This is simply because there is slightly more demand for visas from the adult unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.
There is a longer wait for married adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens right now, and the longest wait is for the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.
It is important to understand that you cannot calculate your exact wait time by looking at the cutoff date in your category. That is, a current cutoff date that is eight years ago means only that people who are getting their visas now have been waiting for eight years. It does not mean that you will have to wait exactly eight years. The cutoff dates change all the time according to how many people actually apply for visas in your category and how fast the State Department can process visas. Sometimes the cutoff date can move forward a whole year in one month. Sometimes the cutoff date can even move backwards!
Picture yourself walking up to a long line of people waiting to get into a club. You’re the newest and last person in the line. You hear that the person at the front of the line, who’s just getting in the club now, has been in the line for eight years. The person controlling entrance to the club, however, sometimes lets a whole lot of people go in at once. That speeds up the line. Some of the people in line change their mind, decide they don’t want to go to the club, and drop out of line. That makes the line go faster too. But sometimes the person at the door realizes he’s let too many people in, so he’s got to stop for a while. You might stand in line for a long time without moving forward at all. While you’re waiting in line, it’s also possible the manager may tell the person at the door that the rules of the club have changed, and that he can let in more people, or has to stop letting so many people in. With all these things that could happen, it’s hard to say exactly how long you’ll have to wait to get in the club.
You will want to pay close attention to the Visa Bulletin and any new laws if you are considering seeking a green card or sponsoring a family member for a green card. Contact a licensed immigration attorney should you have questions about your case.
Employment-Based Preference Categories
The overall concept for the employment-based preference categories is not too different from the family-based categories. The Visa Bulletin breaks down the specific employment-based immigrant visa categories available under the laws and specifies cutoff dates for each category.
However, unlike family-based preferences, an employer in the U.S. is usually the entity sponsoring a foreign national for permanent residence eligibility. In addition, the employment-based categories generally correspond to the difficulty and educational requirements of the employment that the foreign national is to undertake. Two prominent exceptions are the fourth and fifth employment-based preference categories. More on these below.
The cutoff dates and wait times for employment-based immigrant visas tend to be more favorable, but the tradeoff is that the underlying employment-based petitions require a high level of work and documentation from both you and a sponsoring employer. The employment first preference category, reserved for “priority workers,” is available only to workers who are considered outstanding in their field, such as internationally recognized artists, award-winning scientists or the like, or executives or CEOs of multinational companies. Historically, there has been no wait to get a visa in the first preference category.
The employment second and third preference categories are available mainly to persons whose proposed employment in the U.S. will require at least a bachelor’s degree-level education in some specialized field. The second and third preferences usually also require that an employer sponsoring the foreign national conduct a “market test” of the job market, to ensure that no U.S. citizens or permanent residents already in the U.S. will be displaced from an available job. As you might imagine, these requirements are possible to satisfy, but are by no means “easy.” Historically, there has been no wait or a short wait in the second and third preference categories, except for persons born in China, Mexico, India, or the Philippines, who can wait a substantial number of years.
The employment fourth preference category is reserved for “special” immigrants, including certain kinds of religious workers as well as certain juveniles seeking to join foster families in the U.S. The requirements for this category are highly technical and beyond the scope of this article. There is rarely a wait in the fourth preference category.
The fifth preference, known colloquially as the “job creation visa,” is for foreign nationals who can invest between $500,000 to $1 million U.S. dollars of their own personal assets into a venture in the U.S. that can employ at least ten U.S. citizens or permanent residents on a full-time basis. Aside from the high monetary requirements of the fifth preference, U.S. immigration authorities give high-level scrutiny to petitions under this category because of the high likelihood of fraud. Unless you come from China, you should not expect a wait in the fifth preference category.
Diversity Visa Immigration
You may have heard about the diversity immigrant visa (DV) program as a “lottery” for green cards. This is not far off the mark. U.S. immigration law makes available 55,000 immigrant visas for foreign nationals from countries that have low numbers of permanent residence applications to the United States. Provided you meet the minimum educational requirements and do not have issues in terms of past criminal activity, immigration violations, or other problems, you can apply under the DV program for a chance to be randomly selected and assigned an immigrant visa number right away.
Unfortunately as with all lotteries, your chances of success through the DV program are highly dependent upon luck. Further, if you come from a country with already-high numbers of permanent resident applicants, you won’t even be eligible to apply.
However, if you hail from a country that traditionally has had low numbers of U.S. permanent residence applicants, consider the DV program as a relatively easy way to apply for a green card. If you are selected under the DV program, you will have an immediately-available immigrant visa number and a short path to a green card.
Permanent residence in the United States is not easily acquired, but there are certain paths that make the time you need to wait for a green card much shorter. Speak with a licensed immigration attorney about the potential routes you might take to acquiring a green card.