Q. ” I would like to apply for my green card. What is the process to obtain it? I am a student at CUNY and I came from the Caribbean. What can I do?”

July 20, 2011 | Cancellation of Removal, Family Petition, Legal Permanent Residents (LPR)

Please note that this answer only seeks to provide general information and is not a substitute for legal advice.

A.  The law provides many different paths to permanent residence (a green card).  Most people get permanent residence when a relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident petitions for them.  Others qualify because they have a desirable skill or ability, or because they make an investment in the United States.  A smaller group qualifies for immigrant visas in special ways, such as winning the Diversity Visa Lottery or through asylum.

Here’s a brief overview of the two most common ways to qualify for permanent residence.

Family-Based Visas
The largest number of family-based green cards goes to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.  As a practical matter, there is no limit to the number of immigrant visas issued each year for this category. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens include their spouses, unmarried children (under age 21), and parents (if the citizen is 21 or older).   Family-based visas are granted also to “preference” immigrants, who are divided into four categories.  In these preference categories, the law limits the number of visas issued each year to 226,000.  Family-based preference categories include children of U.S. citizens who are 21 or older, children of permanent residents (any age), spouses of permanent residents, or siblings of U.S. citizens (if the U.S. citizen is at least 21).  Because visas are limited, qualified applicants in this category may need to wait many years to be able to immigrate to the United States.

Employment-Based Visas
A person can get employment-based permanent residence if he or she has a unique education or set of skills, outstanding talent, is willing to work a particularly unappealing job, or if he or she invests in a business.  There is a separate quota of 140,000 visas per year for employment-based applicants, divided into five preference categories.  In most employment-based categories, the immigrant must be sponsored by his or her employer.  Usually, the employer must prove that no qualified U.S. workers (U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or asylees and refugees) are immediately available for the job.  The employer also must advertise the position and must offer the job at the prevailing (usual) wage.  If no qualified U.S. workers apply, the U.S. Department of Labor will certify the immigrant worker as eligible for permanent residence.  This process is called “labor certification.” Some workers with outstanding or extraordinary skills can apply for permanent residence without employer sponsorship.  Others may qualify for residence because they have worked for an international company abroad, or because they have experience as a religious worker.  Finally, some people may qualify because they have made an investment of one million dollars in the United States ($500,000 if the investment is in an area of high unemployment).  Please note: in the family and employment-based preference categories, the spouse and unmarried children of the primary applicant can also get residence.  However, this rule does not apply to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.

Getting Permanent Residence the Hard Way

Cancellation of Removal
Undocumented immigrants who have been here ten years or longer and who are in deportation proceedings may qualify for cancellation of removal.  In addition to ten years of residence, you must prove that your U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, parent, or child will suffer “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” if you are deported.  At a minimum, a person must prove that their citizen relative’s hardship would go beyond the unusual hardship that anyone would suffer if separated from a parent, child or spouse.
Be warned:  you can apply for cancellation of removal only in an immigration court. If the judge accepts your application, you become a permanent resident right then and there. However, if you lose, the judge may order you deported.  If you think that you may qualify for cancellation of removal don’t just walk into a USCIS office, because a USCIS officer could detain you on the spot.  If you want to apply for cancellation of removal, get advice from an immigration attorney or accredited not-for-profit representative before doing anything.

Private Bills
A Private Bill is an act of Congress granting permanent residence or U.S. citizenship to an individual. It’s a law with your name on it.  Just like any other piece of federal legislation, it must pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and then the President must sign it.  These days, Congress passes very few private immigration bills. Years ago, private bills were more common. Then, in the 1980’s, the FBI caught some members of Congress taking bribes to push private bills.  After that, private bills came under much more scrutiny.

Congress is most likely to pass a bill for you if you have exhausted all your other remedies and if yours is a sympathetic case.  Often private bills are passed to prevent a person’s deportation.
In order to get a bill passed for you, you must get a member of Congress to introduce it. You can’t apply to Congress for a private bill.  Your representative must do that for you.

Some other hard ways to get permanent residence include the Diversity Visa lottery and applying for asylee or refugee status. There are also special ways to obtain a green card for diplomats and their families, for nationals of certain countries, and for victims of crimes such as domestic violence or trafficking.