How to Become a Legal Immigrant: The Green Card and Naturalization
The process for a foreign citizen to legally acquire a green card and eventually become a legal naturalized citizen of the U.S. is difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Many critics of the system maintain that if the process was simpler there would be far fewer foreign citizens entering and remaining in the U.S. illegally.
When a foreign citizen visits the U.S. as a tourist, a medical patient, a student, or for business purposes, they generally need to present only a valid national passport, a photo ID card or birth certificate, and sometimes an entry visa. A visa is simply an endorsement on a document that shows authenticity and conveys permission to travel to and to enter a foreign country. This type of visa is also known as a nonimmigrant visa. Fees for a passport, a nonimmigrant visa, and a border crossing card total about $300.
However, when a foreign citizen wishes to reside and work in the U.S., they need to present an immigrant visa, also known as a green card. The green card was originally called the Alien Registration Receipt Card, but it has recently been renamed the Permanent Resident Card. Originally the card was green in color but now the card is white with some green printing on the back. It is still known generally as the green card. Recipients of the green card must carry it with them at all times. The green card is valid for a period of 10 years.
The green card is issued to a foreign citizen as a response to a petition by an employer or a relative who is a U.S. citizen. The petition by the employer or relative allows the foreign citizen to enter the U.S. for the purposes of being employed and residing permanently in the country.
The process for acquiring the green card generally follows three steps. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) issues the green card. This service used to be known as the INS or Immigration and Naturalization Service. USCIS is often referred to as simply the Immigration Service and is now part of the Department of Homeland Security. The first step is for the USCIS to review all of the paperwork and approve the petition from the qualifying relative or employer. The second step is to send the approved paperwork to the National Visa Center (NVC) where the petition waits for a visa number to become available. Only a limited number of visa numbers are available each year. Once a visa number becomes available, then the third step is for the petition to be forwarded to the appropriate U.S. embassy or consulate in the foreign citizenís home city or country.
The three step process appears to be simple and straightforward, but the expenses and the amount of paperwork and time involved make the process difficult and frustrating.
The first step to obtain a green card is for the sponsoring relative or employer to submit the proper forms to USCIS. The process of filling out, collecting, and forwarding the paperwork on to NVC can take two months or more. Typically, not all of the necessary forms are submitted the first time and communication by mail between the USCIS and the petitioner and between the USCIS and NVC is slow. Fees for the paperwork, photos, and supporting documents can total $190 to $400.
Next, NVC collects the paperwork and determines if additional items are needed to complete the application process. There generally are additional necessary forms, passports, and documents needed before everything can be forwarded to a U.S. embassy or consulate in the foreign citizenís home city or country. This process can take two to seven months and requires the payment of processing fees and fingerprinting which cost about $500 or more.
If the petition is for an immediate relative, such as parents, spouses, and minor children, then the application does not need to wait for a visa number, and the petition can be sent on to the U.S. embassy or consulate. Some consulates are busier with green card applications than others and the waiting period for an appointment at the consulate ranges from a couple of weeks to 9 months. In addition to identity documents the applicant must present blood tests and medical exam results which may cost an additional $200 or more. After the appointment at the consulate and the approval of the petition, the foreign citizen is issued the Permanent Resident Card or green card. The citizen is then free to enter the United States for purposes of establishing a residence or beginning employment.
If the petition is for a family member other than an immediate relative, such as adult children, married children, and brothers and sisters, then the application must wait for an Immigrant Visa number to become available. The waiting period may take a few months to as long as 10 years. Only a limited number of Immigrant Visa numbers are available for each country each year. An application may wait for a long period of time if the applicant is from a country which sponsors a large number of applicants. After the petition receives a visa number the application is sent to the U.S. embassy or consulate and the citizen can then complete the appointment and receive their Permanent Resident Card or green card.
The green card is valid for 10 years. After five years of residency in the U.S. the citizen is eligible to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. In addition to the five years of residency, the citizen must show an ability to read, write, and speak English, understand U.S. history and government, have good moral character, and be willing to abide by the principles of the U.S. Constitution. Fees for the application and electronic fingerprinting total about $400. Once the citizen has taken the Oath of Allegiance they become a full U.S. citizen.
Obtaining permanent residency or citizenship in the United States requires a large commitment of time, determination, and resources. Simplification of the process would allow foreign citizens to more easily immigrate to the U.S. legally and would likely reduce the number of illegal immigrants. The United States has a proud history of successful legal immigration.