You certainly can’t tell who a “special immigrant” visa is meant to cover by its name. In fact, this visa category (technically, the employment fourth preference category ) is an odd one, created by Congress for various visas that don’t seem to fit anywhere else. It comprises numerous subcategories, as described below.
There is a limit on visas in this category: Only 10,000 green cards in total become available annually for all the special immigrant categories combined. No more than 5,000 of these can be allocated toward religious workers who are not ministers or members of the clergy. No more than 1,500 can be allocated to Afghan nationals who worked for the U.S. government while in their country. No more than 5,000 per year can be allocated to nationals of Iraq who worked for or with the U.S. government there.
Who Qualifies as a Special Immigrant
Special immigrant visas (which lead to lawful permanent resident status and green cards upon arrival in the U.S.) are available to the following, under Section 101(a)(27) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.):
- clergy and other professional, vocational workers with bona fide, nonprofit religious organizations (as discussed in the article, “EB-4 Visa for Religious Workers: Who Qualifies?”)
- foreign workers who provided faithful service to the U.S. government or the American Institute in Taiwan for at least 15 years
- Panama Canal Treaty employees who provided faithful service for at least one year or whose safety was endangered by treaty ratification after at least five years’ faithful service, as well as Panamanian nationals who honorably retired from U.S. government employment after at least 15 years (now seldom-used categories)
- foreign medical graduates who entered the United States as nonimmigrants before January 10, 1978 and remained continuously present in the United States in the practice or study of medicine since their entry (almost no one fits this category anymore)
- Afghan nationals who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan and are under threat as a result. This program has had various sunset dates. As of mid-2014, the U.S. State Department says that 3,000 visas will be issued to principal applicants under this program in fiscal year (FY) 2014, with any unissued visas allotted to FY 2015. The program will end when all of the 3,000 visas have been used or on September 30, 2015, whichever comes first. The deadline for applying for the required Chief of Mission approval was September 30, 2014
- Iraqi nationals who provided faithful service working for or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq and who experienced an ongoing serious threat as a result (after various extensions, any cases that filed for Chief of Mission approval before September 30, 2014 are eligible for visas
- retired officers or employees of certain international organizations who have lived in the U.S. for a certain time
- foreign nationals who have been declared dependent on U.S. juvenile courts in because they were neglected, abused, or abandoned by their immigrant parent(s), as discussed in Nolo's article, “Special Immigrant Juvenile Status: Who Is Eligible”
- persons who served honorably for 12 years on active U.S. military duty after October 15, 1978 after enlisting outside the U.S.
- NATO civilian employees (another seldom-used category), and
- persons coming to work as broadcasters for the International Broadcasting Bureau of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or for its grantee (a rarely used category).
Each of these categories comes with a separate set of requirements as to how the applicant must prove eligibility and ultimately apply.
How to Apply for Special Immigrant Status
Applications are typically made on Form I-360, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Details are often found in the Adjudicator’s Field Manual. For more information, consult an experienced immigration attorney.