If you have close family members in the United States, they may be able to help you immigrate (receive U.S. lawful permanent resident, also known as a “green card”). Whether you will succeed at this depends first on what relation the U.S. family member is to you. The closer your relationship, the more rights you have under U.S. immigration law.
Your success at getting a U.S. green card through family also depends on whether your relative is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder). U.S. citizens can bring more distant relatives than green card holders can—their parents and brothers and sisters, for example. Also, the U.S. citizens’ status means that their relatives are allowed, in many cases, to immigrate faster than lawful permanent residents’ relatives are.
Nobody, no matter how close the family relationship to someone in the U.S., goes straight from having no status to being an actual U.S. citizen. This status is reserved for people who have held a green card first—with the exception, in some cases, of people who have U.S. citizen parents. See How to Become a U.S. Citizen for more information on this.
Here are some advantages and disadvantages to green cards obtained based on U.S. family relationships:
You may qualify for a green card through relatives if you fall into one of the following categories:
Immediate relative status is the best you can hope for, because immediate relatives may immigrate to the U.S. in unlimited numbers. They are not controlled by the annual limits or quotas that affect the preference relative categories, which create years-long waits for a green card.
The following types of foreign-born people qualify as immediate relatives:
Stepparents and stepchildren qualify as immediate relatives if the marriage creating the parent/child relationship took place before the child’s 18th birthday. Parents and children related through adoption may also, in some cases, qualify as immediate relatives. For details, see these articles concerning Adopting a Child From Overseas.
Preference relative status is also a useful way to obtain a U.S. green card, but not necessarily a fast one. Depending on demand, you will have to wait in line, possibly for many years or even decades, before claiming your green card.
You qualify as a preference relative if you fit one of the categories below:
For details on what types of waits to expect in these categories, see How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date to Become Current?
In the preference categories, once a U.S. citizen or resident submits a visa petition for a foreign-born relative, that person’s spouse and children (unmarried, under the age of 21) will automatically be included in the immigration process (if they wish) as a so-called “derivative” beneficiary.
The U.S. petitioner needs only name them on the initial visa petition (Form I-130) to start the process for them. (Eventually, however, they will have to submit their own, independent applications for an immigrant visa or green card.)
This derivative benefit applies to:
This benefit does not, however, apply to immediate relatives. So, for example, if a U.S. citizen petitions for a foreign-born husband or wife who has children, the citizen will need to separately petition for any children—which is possible only if they qualify as his or her stepchildren.