Foreign workers may obtain green cards to come to the United States only if their potential U.S. employer can prove that no U.S. worker (meaning a citizen, permanent resident, refugee, or asylee) is qualified, willing, and available to take the job. The process of proving this to the U.S. government is called "labor certification." (The requirements are much less for foreign workers seeking to enter the U.S. on temporary, nonimmigrant visas, such as H-1Bs and H-2Bs, which are not covered here; for more information, see Who Qualifies for a Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visa.)
The procedures for obtaining labor certification were radically changed in 2005, in an effort to streamline and shorten the application process.
The first step is for the employer to request what's called a "prevailing wage determination" (PWD) from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) using an online system called FLAG. The PWD will indicate how much is normally paid to people in jobs equivalent to the one being offered. This information is important because the employer must offer the immigrating worker 100% or more of the prevailing wage. The PWD is valid for no less than 90 days and no more than one year.
Next, the employer can begin making the required good faith effort to find a U.S. worker for the job, by advertising and recruiting in the United States. (Actually, the employer can start recruiting U.S. workers before this, but must make sure to offer a salary that's at least as high as the prevailing wage.)
The Department of Labor (DOL) regulations spell out strict rules for recruiting. For starters, the employer must post a job notice at the worksite and announce the job in a statewide computer databank and in newspapers or other journals of general circulation, with ads appearing on two different Sundays. If the application is for a professional, the employer must conduct three additional steps chosen from a list published in the DOL regulations.
For further detail, see Employer Recruitment Requirements Under PERM.
If, after the recruiting is done, the employer has not found a qualified, willing, available, and able U.S. worker to take the job, it can submit what's called a PERM labor certification application to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The application involves completing a multi-page DOL form (ETA-9089), preferably online through the FLAG portal. Or, a pdf version is available on the DOL website. No supporting documents need be submitted, though they must be available in case DOL requests them.
When the DOL implemented the PERM system, it was supposed to make a decision on the labor certification within 45 to 60 days. As of late 2023, the processing time is nearly one year. Audited applications take several more months.
Only after the labor certification is approved can the employer and immigrant proceed. First, the employer must file a visa petition on USCIS Form I-140. The visa petition process is described in the article The Visa Petition: First Step for Family and Employment Green Cards. After the visa petition has been approved, the immigrant must apply for lawful permanent residence (a green card), either through a procedure called adjustment of status (if the immigrant is legally in the U.S.) or consular processing (if the immigrant is overseas). In some cases, it's possible to submit the I-140 petition and adjustment of status application together, or "concurrently."
For more information, see How to File a Green Card Application.
For workers in the following categories, no labor certification needs to be filed before the worker applies for a U.S. green card. These exceptions include:
For detailed information on applying for the labor certification and employment-based green cards, as well as nonimmigrant work visas, such as the H-1B visa, see U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo). If you're an immigrant worker, your U.S. employer should hire an attorney, or have one on staff to help with this process.