When Foreign Employees of the U.S. Government Qualify for a U.S. Green Card

Foreign employees of the U.S. government abroad may, based on years of loyalty or other special circumstances, qualify for U.S. lawful permanent residence.

By , Attorney Florida Coastal School of Law
Updated 3/29/2023

The U.S. government employs tens of thousands of foreign employees in countries where it operates—at foreign service establishments including U.S. embassies or consulates, military bases, and offices of organizations such as the Peace Corps or the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

These foreign employees of the U.S. government abroad, including so-called "foreign-service nationals" (citizens of host countries) and "third-country nationals" (noncitizen residents of host countries), can serve in a variety of nondiplomatic and non-sensitive (but still important) roles. These might include embassy security guards, translators, procurement specialists, or even political advisers. In addition, they might include local individual private contractors who are hired and paid directly by the U.S. government, but not people who are hired or paid through contractors.

Such foreign employees often remain in their functions for several years, while their U.S. citizen colleagues and supervisors are regularly rotated around various countries. In recognition of such loyalty, the U.S. government has made available a special type of immigrant visa and green card though the employment fourth-preference category.

General Criteria for Obtaining a Foreign Employee Green Card

If you are a current employee or a former ("honorably retired") employee of the U.S. government abroad, you and your accompanying spouse and children may qualify for a special immigrant visa if, after at least a combined 15 years of "faithful service," you receive a recommendation from the "principal officer" of a U.S. foreign service establishment based on "exceptional circumstances" and the recommendation is approved by State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.

"Principal officer" means an ambassador, consul, or other head of a U.S. government agency's field office abroad.

"Honorably retired" means an employee who was not fired (or did not resign to avoid being fired). If you were laid off due to general reductions in personnel size, you would still be considered an "honorably retired" employee.

"Faithful service" is more difficult to define. It does not necessarily exclude employees who got into trouble with their employers. What it means exactly is for the principal officer to judge, based on discretion in that individual case.

"Exceptional circumstances" is also difficult to define. It implies, at the very least, that not all faithful longtime employees of U.S. foreign service establishments can become eligible for a special immigrant visa.

More About the "Exceptional Circumstance" Criterion for Foreign Employee Green Card

"Exceptional circumstances" would easily include circumstances when foreign employees put their life or safety on the line for the United States. For example, a security guard who stops an actual terrorist attack on a U.S. embassy would certainly qualify.

"Exceptional circumstances" can also include situations when relations between the United States and the foreign employee's home country (or country of employment) have been severed, or when such relations have been strained and the foreign employee might be subjected to persecution (or to pressures to divulge sensitive information) based on the person's employment with the United States.

"Exceptional circumstances" might also apply in recognition of foreign employees with high responsibilities, a sustained record of awards or valuable services, and/or an especially long record of employment (say, well over 20 years, especially as a third-country national).

General Procedure for Obtaining a Foreign Employee Green Card

If you believe you might qualify for a special immigrant visa as a current or former employee of the U.S. government abroad, you can start the process of applying by signaling your desire to obtain a recommendation for that purpose to your current or former superiors. (A pre-screening system or other channel might already be in place for this type of procedure.)

If, for example, you are a current U.S. embassy employee, and the ambassador agrees to recommend you in accordance with the criteria discussed above, then the ambassador will need to send a detailed assessment of your performance to the Advisory Opinions Division of the State Department in Washington, D.C., along with your official records of employment and sufficient documentation of "exceptional circumstances" to justify the recommendation.

If and when the recommendation is approved by the State Department, you must file with your local consulate a Form DS-1884, Petition to Classify Special Immigrant under INA 203(b)(4) as an Employee or Former Employee of the U.S. Government Abroad.

This petition carries no fee and should be granted easily at that point. However, you and your family should be ready to apply for an immigrant visa and to move to the U.S. very soon, because the petition is normally valid for only six months. (Extensions may be obtained for unanticipated delays.)

The immigrant visas will be granted if there are no special reasons (grounds of inadmissibility) for the U.S. to keep you or your family members out, and will be valid as a travel document for one year.

Getting Legal Help

Hiring an experienced immigration attorney to handle your foreign-employee green card case can be an excellent idea, given the complexity of both the law and the paperwork. The attorney can analyze the facts of your case and spot any potential problems, prepare the forms and help gather documents, write cover letters and legal arguments, and monitor the progress toward approval.

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