What's the Easiest Way to Get a U.S. Green Card?

There are many paths to a U.S. green card, with varying requirements and wait times.

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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 document is released monthly by the U.S. Department of State, which publishes the most up-to-date availability of immigrant visa numbers. This document 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. The Visa Bulletinbreaks 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, children 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 FirstSecondThird, 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 dates. These dates are called Priority Dates. These dates reflect the filing date of immigrant petitions that are now being processed by U.S. immigration for each preference category.

Let’s examine how this works. In the Visa Bulletin for March 2013, the table lists a Priority Date of February 15, 2006 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 petitions that were filed on February 15, 2006 or earlier. Stated differently, a U.S. citizen who files an immigrant petition for her 21-or-older, unmarried son or daughter in March 2013 will have a wait of approximately seven years before an immigrant visa number becomes available for the son or daughter. The wait time is the difference between the date the immigrant petition is filed and the published priority date.

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, Priority 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. Next, spouses and under-21 children of U.S. permanent residents have the next-shortest wait time, approximately two and a half years as of the date of this article.

As you can see, immediate relatives have the shortest route to attaining permanent residence. 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.

Immigration law is an ever-shifting field, however. With the U.S. Congress continually deliberating on and revising immigrant visa availability, 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. You should 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 priority 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 are generally delineated by 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 later.

In general the Priority Dates and wait times for employment-based immigrant visas are 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 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.

The 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 infer, these requirements are feasible to satisfy but are by no means “easy.”

The Fourth Preference 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 piece.

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 scrutinize to petitions under this category because of the high likelihood of fraud.

Overall, if you have an employer willing to sponsor you under the First, Second, or Third Preference categories, or if you have the financial resources to invest under the Fifth Preference program, you will have a shorter wait time to attaining permanent residence. However, the underlying requirements and procedures for employment-based immigration are nothing to sneeze at. Speak with your potential employer, as well as a licensed immigration attorney, if you are considering the employment-based immigration path.

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 visa numbers 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. Making an application under the DV program is akin to rolling a dice. Further, if you come from a country with already-high numbers of permanent resident applicants, your chances for being selected for a DV immigrant visa lessen dramatically.

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. As of this article, DV availability was highest for applicants from countries in Africa and Europe. 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 which 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.

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