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Understanding the U.S. Family Immigration Process

Posted by Uzo Akpele | Jun 03, 2023 | 0 Comments

The United States has a long history of re-uniting families. Its family-based immigration is part of the visa system that allows a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (green-card holder ) to sponsor their family members to join them in the United States.  When the process is completed, the family member will be given a green card which allows one to live and work in the United States and work towards becoming a US citizen.

The green card process starts with the a US citizen or Permanent Resident filing a Relative Petition with the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS).  The relative petition tells the USCIS that the person filing the petition is a US citizen (or permanent resident) and asks the USCIS to recognize the person being filed for (beneficiary) as a qualified relative and to grant immigration benefits to the beneficiary. 

Who can Petition for their Relatives

Citizens of the United States may relative petition for their

  • Spouses
  • Unmarried children under 21
  • Stepchildren (if step-relationship started before the age of 18)
  • Parents
  • Adopted Children (if adoption took place before the age of 16 and the US citizen has had control and custody of the child for two years)
  • Children aged 21 and over
  • Siblings (including half-siblings)

Permanent Residents may file a relation petition for their

  • Spouses (if a spouse has a child under the age of 21, that child will be processed along with the spouse of the permanent resident)
  • Unmarried children 

Classification of Relatives -- Family members of US citizens are classed as Immediate Relatives or Preference Category Relatives.  Parents, Spouses and Children (including stepchildren and adopted children) under the age of 21 are Immediate Relatives.  Every other person who is not an immediate relative falls into the Preference Category Relative. 

The US family immigration system also prioritizes who should be given a green card through its system of visa numbers and quotas.  There is a quota (and definite number) of visas allotted to preference category relatives each year, but immediate relatives do not have a quota.  

Each preference relative literally has a number and has to wait until their visa quota number is called up (becomes current) before they can adjust status or apply to adjust status.   Having to wait for a visa number to become available may take years, depending on the classification the beneficiary of the visa petition.  

One cannot file a relative petition for grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousin and in-laws.

When the relative petition is approved, the beneficiary applies for to adjust status (if in the United States) or applies for an immigrant visa from outside the United States.

Who May Get Their Green Card Inside the United States?  

Immediate Relatives may apply to adjust status IF they came into the US after inspection by an immigration officer.  If an immediate relative crossed the border without inspection or came in using a passport in a name that is not theirs, they will not be able to adjust status.  They will have to leave the US to an apply for an immigrant visa.  Once they depart the US, they will be barred from returning to the US for a number of years.  (They may however be able to remedy this by applying for a WAIVER).  Immediate relatives who have overstayed their allowed stay, or who have worked without permission may still be able to adjust status without a waiver.

Preference Category Relatives may adjust status if they are already in the US under another non-immigrant visa status and will remain in that status until the adjustment application is approved.

How Quickly Will I Get My Green Card?  

This depends on fast the USCIS and the Department of State are processing cases, AS WELL AS the status of your  petitioner AND your relationship to your petitioner.

Our office will discuss your case thoroughly with you, assist you to decide which petition is suitable for your case, prepare and file the relative petition and accompany you to USCIS interviews.  

Contact us at 404.250.3295 to schedule a Consultation today. 

About the Author

Uzo Akpele

Uzo Akpele was born and raised in Nigeria. In 1986, she began studying law at The University of Nigeria, graduating in 1990. In 1991, she was admitted into the Nigeria Bar. Upon moving to the United States, she again studied law at The University of Georgia School of Law, from where she graduated in 2000.


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