Green Card Process and U.S. Immigration Law

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Going through the green card process under U.S. immigration law is a daunting but rewarding task. The first step is to understand some of the basic immigration terminology. There are two general ways of becoming a lawful permanent resident: one is called consular processing; the other is called adjustment of status. The latter, adjustment of status, is the process used by most who are already in the U.S. for immigration purposes, also frequently known as the green card process. Even though many people refer to the process as “getting your green card,” know that the more formal reference is “adjustment of status” to a lawful permanent resident. The goal is to convert your temporary status to a permanent status. The resulting green card serves as proof of that status.

Qualifying for Permanent Resident Status

Your next step is to determine if you are eligible at this time. Every green card application involves filing fees and certain expenses. Before you rack-up a series of filing fees, find out if you qualify. If you have had legal issues in your past, especially recent past, you will have difficulty even qualifying for a green card under U.S. Immigration law. Issues that can be a barrier include criminal convictions, prior removals, and drug addiction issues. You may be able to resolve some issues through the help of an attorney. For example, if you are charged with a lower level criminal offense, an attorney may be able to assist you in negotiating a diverted or deferred resolution, which means a conviction would not appear on your record.

How Your Status Matters

Your status will also affect your eligibility. If you fall “out-of-status” at any time before or during the green card application, your application can be denied. Out-of-status means that you are no longer in the country legally. For example, you have a travel visa to be in the United States for a certain period of time. If you remain in the U.S. after the expiration of your visa, you will have fallen out-of-status. There are some exceptions to this rule, fortunately. If you are out-of-status, but have family members that are in this country legally, you may want to review those exceptions with an immigration attorney who is well versed in immigration law. If you are currently out-of-status, and no exceptions apply for you to remain in the country, you may want to delay your application since filing for a green card could subject you to removal proceedings.

Choosing a Category

Once you establish that you’re eligible, you then need to pick which category you’re going to file under. There are four general categories: family based, employment based, humanitarian, or special class. Each year, a certain number of visas are permitted by category. There are certain times when only certain categories are available. If a visa number is not available in your category, then you should hold off filing your petition until a number is available. Filing your application for a green card in a category for which a number is not available will result in a rejection of your application and a loss of your filing fee. You do not get a refund if your application is rejected. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Department (USCIS) updates their website regularly with visa number availability.

Completing the Green Card Application

Once a visa number is available in your category, you can then file your application. For most, the form you will need to complete is Form I-485. The form can be completed by hand, however, any entries should be clearly legible. You don’t want any confusion regarding any of your responses. You will also need to attach all of the required documentation for your category. Items generally required for all green card applications include evidence of your criminal history, birth certificate, passport information, color photographs of yourself, and your filing fee. Some categories will require additional documents. 

After you submit your application, USCIS may have additional questions. They will call you in for an interview to clarify any issues and ask follow-up questions. Most interviews will be under oath, subject to penalties for providing false answers. If you are called to an interview, it is extremely important to make your appointment. In addition to an interview, USCIS may require that you be subject to fingerprinting or a medical exam. Failure to respond to any of these follow-up procedures could result in a denial of your green card application. 

Once USCIS processes your application, you will be notified in writing of the results. If your application is denied, you may be able to appeal the decision. Your denial letter will usually advise you on whether you can appeal and also how to do so if you have appeal rights. 

Getting Help from an Immigration Lawyer

This is a general explanation of the process of applying for a green card, or adjustment of status. It can be overwhelming, but still plausible if you take it one step at a time. If you are not currently in the U.S., you may still be able to obtain permanent status, but through another process called consular processing through the U.S. Embassy in your country. Because immigration law tends to cover so many different situations (i.e. family ties, criminal history, medical history), and several exceptions are applicable to the general rules, it is a good idea to at least consult with an immigration attorney before you file for adjustment of status. See what strategies and pitfalls may be applicable to your personal situation.

When you receive your green card, you also receive the rights and responsibilities of being a permanent legal resident. Once you have gone through the daunting effort of obtaining your green card, do not waste your efforts by neglecting the responsibilities that come with the issuance of the green card.

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