Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Categories

Can relatives come to the U.S.? It depends on how the family member is related.

Many people in the United States have family members living in other countries, and wonder whether they can bring them here. It’s a myth that if one immigrant settles in the United States, that one can get green cards (permanent residence) for the whole extended family, and so on. The truth is both more limited and more complex.

Who You Can Help Immigrate

You can petition to bring family members to the United States (often called “sponsoring” them) only if you are a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident (green card holder). Even then, you can bring in only those family members listed on the chart below. Before reading the chart, see below the explanations of the meanings of “immediate relative” and “preference relative.”

Immediate Relative: Although the common meaning of this is a close family relation, it has a more specific meaning in immigration law. Immediate relatives are a category of prospective immigrants who include a U.S. citizen’s spouse, minor children (under the age of 21), and parents (so long as the citizen is at least 21 years old). Immediate relatives have an immediate right to apply for U.S. permanent residence (assuming their U.S. family member agrees to start the process on their behalf) — unlike more distant relatives, they aren’t subject to yearly limits on the numbers who can apply for permanent residence.

Preference Relative: An immigration term for certain people who may be eligible for U.S. permanent residence (a “green card”) based on family relationships. Preference relatives include the married children of U.S. citizens, children over 21 of U.S. citizens, the spouses or children of U.S. green card holders, and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens where the U.S. citizen is at least 21 years old. Preference relatives must usually wait to get a green card, because only around 480,000 are available to them in total each year. They must wait in line based on their priority date, which is the date when their U.S. citizen or permanent resident petitioner first filed a visa petition indicating willingness to sponsor the immigrant.

Who Can Sponsor Who
Who You Are Immigrants You Can Petition The Immigrant’s Category
U.S. citizen age 21 or older Parents Immediate relative
U.S. citizen (at least age 18, for financial sponsorship purposes) Spouse Immediate relative
U.S. citizen (at least age 18, for financial sponsorship purposes) Minor, unmarried children Immediate relative
U.S. citizen Married children or adult children Preference relative
(1st preference)
U.S. citizen age 21 or older Brothers and sisters Preference relative (4th preference)
U.S. permanent resident Unmarried children Preference relative
(2nd preference — 2A or 2B)
U.S. permanent resident Spouse Preference relative
(2nd preference)

Notice who is not on this list: grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents-in-law, and other extended family members.

However, if allowed to immigrate to the United States, most of the people on the above list will be permitted to bring their own spouses and children with them. And it is true that once someone has a green card, they can sponsor other people on the list.

How Long Must Relatives Wait?

Immediate relatives can get green cards without worrying about waiting periods or numerical limits. Preference relatives may have to wait between approximately four and 23 years before being allowed to apply for their visa or green card.

Also, only a certain percentage of the green cards go to any one country each year. That means if a particularly high number of people from certain countries submit petitions — as is often the case with India, Mexico, China, and the Philippines — their family members end up waiting even longer than others.

Because of the annual limits on how many green cards (immigrant visas) are given out, and the unpredictability of how many people submit petitions each year, no one can say exactly how long each applicant will wait.

As a general rule, applicants in higher preference categories wait less time. The average wait these days from most countries (excluding India, Mexico, China, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines) is as follows:

Current Average Waiting Period
Type of Preference Relative Preference Category Average Wait
Adult, unmarried children of U.S. citizens First preference Seven years
Spouses or children of permanent residents Second preference Four years for spouses and for minor children (2A); eight years for adult children age 21 or over (2B)
Married children of U.S. citizens Third preference Ten years
Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens Fourth preference Eleven years

The longest waits are endured by siblings of U.S. citizens (4th preference) from the Philippines — currently a staggering 23 years.

How to Start the Application Process

The family member who you will sponsor will have to go through a multi-step application process. It’s your job as a U.S. citizen or green card holder to start the process, by submitting a visa petition. Your family member can’t enter the U.S. until both the petition and subsequent applications have been approved.

Sponsor vs. Petitioner

Although the term commonly used to describe a U.S. citizen or resident who helps someone immigrate is “sponsor,” this isn’t the technical term. You “petition” for your family member, so you’re a “petitioner.” Your incoming family member is called a “beneficiary.”

There are some important steps you can take to speed up your family member’s progress toward a green card.

Apply for U.S. Citizenship

If you are a U.S. permanent resident, not a citizen, you can help by applying for citizenship as soon as you’re eligible. That’s usually five years after getting your green card. For more information, see my article Applying for U.S. Citizenship.

As soon as you’re a citizen, your family members can move to a speedier immigration category. For example, your spouse would become an “immediate relative,” and could apply for a green card right away. Your parents would go from having no immigration rights to being immediate relatives, and your children would become immediate relatives or move to higher preference categories, depending on their age and whether they are married.

Warn Your Waiting Children Not to Marry

Children who marry have it tough when it comes to immigrating. If you’re a permanent resident and you have petitioned for an unmarried child, that child’s marriage will destroy the right to immigrate under your petition. If you’re a U.S. citizen and your child marries, that will drop the child down into the third preference category, meaning a long wait.

Make sure your children know these risks before they marry. It won’t matter that they were unmarried when you started the immigration process for them; they have to be unmarried when they pick up their immigrant visa or green card.

Have Multiple U.S. Family Members Sponsor the Same Immigrant

Hopeful immigrants (beneficiaries) shouldn’t pin all of their hopes on one petitioner. If something goes wrong — for example, the petitioner dies or divorces the beneficiary before the beneficiary gets a green card — the opportunity is, in most cases, lost.

There is no harm in having more than one U.S. citizen or resident file visa petitions for a waiting immigrant. For instance, both parents could file for a child, to insure against the death of one parent. Or a person married to a permanent resident could have both the resident and their U.S. citizen parent file a visa petition for them.

 

Comments or questions are welcome.

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