When a foreign-born person becomes eligible for a U.S. green card, whether through family or employment, immigration law usually allows them to bring spouses and children along at the same time. But this is not always the case. Let's look at who can and cannot come along on the immigration process as a "derivative," and what to do when they can't and don't wish to remain behind.
A spouse or child who wishes to immigrate to the U.S. as a derivative beneficiary must:
Put another way, immediate family members can usually ride along on the main immigrant's petition; but not always, as discussed next. And no family members other than immediate ones can be derivatives. The immigrant's parents and siblings, for example, have no derivative rights.
Figuring out whether a relative is eligible for a type of immigrant visa that allows for derivative beneficiaries is relatively simple, because only one immigrant visa category does not do so: the so-called "immediate relative" category of family-based visas. "Immediate relatives" include a U.S. citizen's parents, spouse, and unmarried children under 21 years of age.
So, for instance, if a U.S. citizen wishes to sponsor a foreign-born spouse who has children from a previous marriage, those children cannot immigrate as derivatives. But there is a workaround, such that they might be able to immigrate at the same time. If a legal "stepchild" relationship exists: the U.S. citizen could file separate visa petitions for each of them (USCIS Form I-130), since that would make them immediate relatives in their own right.
Similarly, the immigrating parents of U.S. citizens cannot bring their own younger children into the U.S. on the same I-130 visa petition that their U.S. citizen child over the age of 21 filed.
Everyone else in the family- and employment-based visa system is in what's called a "preference category."
So, immigrants can bring their unmarried children along if they get their visa through either:
(For more information about these categories, see Green Card Through a U.S. Family Member: Who Qualifies?)
In the preference categories, once an employer or a U.S. citizen or resident submits a visa petition (USCIS Form I-140 or I-130) 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 to start the process for them. Eventually, however, they will have to submit their own, independent applications for an immigrant visa or green card, whether to a U.S. consulate or to USCIS (if they are already in the U.S. and "adjusting status").
This ability to obtain immigrant visas for one's derivatives does not extend beyond spouses and children. The incoming immigrant cannot, for example, bring in parents, brothers and sisters, or grandchildren. (Though it might be possible to petition for other family members to receive green cards eventually, particularly after the immigrants become U.S. citizens.)