Family Immigration

Which Relatives May a US Citizen Bring to the US?

The State Department issues family-based immigrant visas to citizens of a foreign country who are sponsored by the immediate relative of a US citizen. More distant relatives and relatives of a lawful permanent resident may be eligible for a family preference visa.

There are many reasons that US citizens and lawful permanent residents (green card holders) might want to sponsor a relative in a different country. Citizens might marry a foreign spouse or adopt a foreign child with the expectation that the spouse or child will soon move into their homes. Naturalized citizens and green card holders may have family members behind when they moved to the United States.

Family-Based Immigration

The State Department does not limit the number of visas that can be issued for immediate relatives of US citizens. Family preference visas are limited, so there is often a long waiting period before they will be issued.

In either case, sponsors must be at least 21 years old. They must prove their relationship with the relative they wish to sponsor. That process begins by filing a Petition for Alien Relative (Form I-130) with supporting evidence.

The petition is the first step in obtaining a family-based green card for eligible family members. An Iowa immigration lawyer can help citizens and green card holders obtain and file the necessary evidence to secure approval of the petition.

The difference between an immediate relative visa and a family preference visa begins with the definition of “immediate relative.” Keep in mind that an immediate relative visa is only available to U.S. citizens.

Immediate Relatives

A US citizen, including a naturalized citizen, may sponsor the application of an immediate relative for a family-based green card. An “immediate relative” is the sponsor’s

  • spouse,
  • child, or
  • parent.

Each “immediate relative” category requires further explanation. Not all spouses, children, or parents are eligible for an immediate relative visa.

Eligible Spouses

Most spouses of US citizens are eligible for an immediate relative visa. The most common exceptions are:

  • A spouse who was not present with the petitioning spouse at the marriage ceremony.
  • A spouse who became a green card holder during a prior marriage to a US citizen or green card holder, unless the spouse has held a green card for at least 5 years or has been naturalized as a US citizen.
  • A spouse who was involved in immigration court proceedings or facing deportation when the marriage occurred.
  • A spouse who entered into a fraudulent marriage to obtain a green card.

There are often exceptions to the exceptions. An immigration lawyer can investigate the facts and determine whether a spouse can be sponsored even if the spouse does not appear to be eligible.

Eligible Children

Biological children of a US citizen are eligible for an immediate relative visa if they are

  • unmarried, and 
  • under the age of 21. 

Unmarried children who were adopted abroad or will be adopted in the US are eligible, but only if the adoption occurs before the child reaches the age of 16.

Unmarried stepchildren of US citizens are eligible, but only if the sponsor’s marriage to the stepchild’s biological parent occurred before the stepchild turned 18.

Eligible Parents

Parents of a US citizen are eligible for an immediate relative visa if they are at least 21 years old. However, the biological parent of a child who was adopted by a US citizen is not eligible.

Family Preference Visas

A US citizen may sponsor certain relatives who are not immediate relatives, but those relatives will face a waiting period because only a limited number of family preference visas are available. Relatives who can be sponsored include the sponsor’s

  • brothers and sisters,
  • unmarried children who are over the age of 21, and
  • married children of any age.

A green card holder may also sponsor certain relatives for a family-preference visa. A green card holder may only sponsor his or her

  • spouse, and
  • unmarried children.

Sponsorship by a US citizen or green card holder does not extend to more distant relatives, including grandchildren, grandparents, in-laws, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and cousins.

Petition for Alien Relatives

The process for obtaining a family-based visa begins by filing a Petition for Alien Relatives (Form I-130) with supporting evidence. That evidence typically includes:

  • A document (such as a birth certificate or passport) establishing the sponsor’s US citizenship, or the sponsor’s green card.
  • Evidence establishing the sponsor’s name change, if any occurred.
  • Evidence (such as a birth certificate or passport) establishing the foreign citizen’s identity and nationality.
  • Evidence of the family relationship between the sponsor and the foreign citizen. A marriage certificate proving that the sponsor and foreign citizen are married, or a birth certificate showing that the foreign citizen is the sponsor’s child, are examples of evidence that might be satisfactory.

Alternative proof may be acceptable if required documents are unavailable. Alternative proof, known as “secondary evidence,” helps establish the existence of a relationship when required documents cannot be located. An immigration lawyer can identify potential secondary evidence when required documents are difficult to obtain.

Form I-130 must be filed with a filing fee. The form is usually filed online after creating an account with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Application for Family-Based Visa

The Petition for Alien Relative is filed by the US citizen or green card holder who wants to sponsor a relative’s family-based visa. The relative is responsible for applying for the family-based visa (green card).

If the relative is living outside the United States, the application is made through the U.S. Embassy in the country where the relative resides. If the relative is in the United States with a different kind of visa (such as a student or tourist visa), the relative applies for an adjustment of status to change that visa into a green card.

Consular processing may be faster than applying for an adjustment of status, although a decision will likely take several months. Consular processing is also more likely to result in the approval of a green card.

However, there are advantages and disadvantages of both procedures. An immigration lawyer can help US citizens decide on the best way to help a relative apply for a green card. 

Call the Law Office Of Raphael M. Scheetz today to discuss how we can help you.

Read also How to Prepare for the Spouse Visa Interview 

and Five Questions to Ask When Searching for an Immigration Attorney


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