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Visas and Green Cards

Definition of “Visa” vs. “Green Card”

Immigration terms such as “visa” and “green card” may be confusing. These terms are often used interchangeably, although they refer to two different things. It is also common for individuals to use these terms in ways that are different from their original meanings. 

A visa gives an individual the right to enter the United States. It is a physical stamp that an individual receives in their passport or equivalent document. A visa generally has to do with entry into the United States. The term visa also refers to a category in which an individual travels to the United States for a temporary stay, such as a student visa and/or a temporary worker visa.

The term green card is actually a slang term that is related to the process of obtaining United States citizenship, rather than simply entry into the country. The term green card application can actually refer to a process such as adjustment of status and/or naturalization. The emphasis of a green card is more on citizenship and residency status than admissibility into the United States. A green card is a plastic photo identification card that an individual receives when they are granted lawful permanent resident status. 

It is important to note that green cards are known as permanent visas, even though the term visa usually refers to temporary visa categories. This may clarify some confusion regarding these terms.

Agency That Grants Green Cards

The first federal government agency to oversee immigration in the United States was created by Congress in 1891. Immigration oversight originally belonged to the Office of Immigration in the Treasury Department.

As the number of immigrants migrating to the United States increased, so did the tasks of this department. Thus, by 1906, legislatures revised the process for citizenship and set-up the Bureau of Immigration to supervise the naturalization of immigrants in the United States.

The next reformation would not take place until the era of the Great Depression, specifically, in 1933. The tasks that belonged to the Bureau were condensed and assigned to the newly formed Immigration and Naturalization Service (“INS”) agency. INS then became responsible for federal oversight of naturalization and immigration throughout the country.

Several decades later, a few months after the passing of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 (“HSA”), the duties fell to a division of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) known as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (“USCIS”). The USCIS is solely responsible for administering benefits associated with green card applications.

In addition, the HSA also led to the creation of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), which are two federal law enforcement agencies whose employees are now charged with the tasks of enforcing border security and immigration laws.

For the purposes of this article, however, the focus will be on the USCIS since that is the primary federal government agency responsible for granting green cards and green card status to immigrants in the United States.

Types of Green Card Categories

Prior to applying for a green card, an immigrant must determine whether they may be eligible to receive one by selecting from one of the green card eligibility categories located on the USCIS website. Persons applying for a green card should visit the USCIS website to review each of these categories and decide which one might best fit their current situation. 

Knowing which green card category that an immigrant falls under is important for the green card application process. It will not only bring an immigrant one step closer to obtaining green card status, but this is also where they will get further information on how to apply, the rest of their specific requirements, and whether or not a family member can apply along with them.

Some examples of the types of green card categories listed on the USCIS website that immigrants may fall under include the following:

  • Family-based green cards: An individual may be eligible to apply for a green card if they are an immediate family member of a U.S. citizen, such as a child, spouse, parent, widow or widower, fiancé, or other close relative of a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident. There may be additional requirements, depending on which subcategory that a prospective green card candidate selects. 
      • This is especially true for applicants who are applying for a marriage visa. In general, marriage visas typically require adhering to special procedural rules. 
  • Employment-sponsored green cards or work visas: An employer may serve as a sponsor for a green card applicant. Some types of workers that an employer may sponsor include an immigrant investor, a physician who agrees to work at a clinical practice, a worker who has an advanced degree or special skills for a specific profession, or possesses extraordinary abilities (e.g., in science, art, athletics, business, education). 
      • Unskilled workers may also qualify for employer sponsorship if they agree to perform unskilled labor tasks that require less than two years of experience. It should be noted that the criteria for employment-based green cards is very specific and is assigned by separate preference-based subcategories.
  • Green cards through special immigrant status or in unique circumstances: These are two separate subcategories and may establish a wide variety of reasons that an immigrant should be issued a green card. Some immigrants who may qualify under these categories include: 
      • Refugees, asylees, religious workers, juveniles, international broadcasters, victims (e.g., of crime, domestic violence, human trafficking, etc.), individuals who satisfy the continuous residency requirements, have diplomatic status, qualify under the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, and several other immigration-based programs. 

It is important to note that the United States places a restriction on the amount of green cards that can be issued per category. Thus, it is strongly encouraged that an immigrant consults with an immigration attorney before attempting to secure a green card. An attorney will be able to help ensure that an immigrant chooses the category best suited to their particular situation as well as that they properly comply with all green card requirements.

The Green Card Application Process

As discussed above, the type of green card eligibility category that an individual selects will determine the remainder of their requirements for the green card application process. The individual must also figure out whether they may file an immigrant petition themselves or if they will need a sponsor to file an immigrant petition on their behalf. 

For example, individuals applying for a green card through employment will need an employer to sponsor them and to file an immigrant petition. If the individual is uncertain, they can either review the requirements laid out under their green card eligibility category or they can speak to an immigration attorney for further advice.

Once the immigrant petition has been submitted to the USCIS, the immigrant will need to wait until the USCIS has issued a decision to find out their next steps. If the USCIS approves the immigrant petition and can issue a green card for the category that a person is applying under, then they must file an application for a green card. This form will either be titled “Green Card Application” or “Form I-485.”

It should be noted that if a person is applying for a green card under certain categories, like as a refugee or asylum seeker, then they may need to wait until the USCIS grants them approval of their special status as well. Again, these requirements can be found under the green card eligibility category that was initially selected.

Additionally, a green card application should include any necessary documentation. Individuals who are ready to file their green card application should be aware that they will need to pay a standard filing fee. An applicant must also schedule a biometrics appointment in which they will need to provide a photograph, an in-person signature, and be fingerprinted.

Lastly, an applicant should be prepared to attend an in-person interview as well. This is usually scheduled after or around the time of the biometrics appointment. Once the interview process is complete, there will be a short waiting period between the date of the interview and the time that the applicant receives a final decision on their green card application. 

The Role An Immigration Lawyer Plays in Terms of Visas and Green Cards

An immigration lawyer provides assistance with applications for both a visa and a green card. A lawyer can assist an individual in obtaining a visa so they can travel to the United States. If an individual has restrictions that may cause them to be inadmissible, such as a criminal record, a lawyer can assist in obtaining a waiver or assist with an appeal if their original claim is denied.

Once an individual has successfully and legally entered into the United States, they may begin to consider how to obtain permanent resident status, or a green card. This is usually the first step towards obtaining full United States citizenship. A lawyer will be able to assist in determining whether an individual is eligible for a green card. A lawyer can also provide advice regarding keeping green card privileges, so an individual does not lose their chance at obtaining citizenship.

These steps typically involve large amounts of paperwork. Additionally, the applicant will typically be required to attend immigration hearings at several points during the process. A lawyer can provide advice on these matters as well as representation during proceedings.

Loosing My Green Card or Permanent Resident Status

Yes, an individual can lose their green card and/or permanent resident status. Once an individual receives lawful permanent resident status, they are eligible to live and work in the United States permanently. 

The green card serves as the physical documentation of their lawful permanent residence status. In general, this status cannot be lost unless the individual renounces the status and/or commits a violation of laws. If a green card is revoked, the individual will lose their permanent resident status and all related privileges. 

There are two main ways an individual can lose their lawful permanent status and have their green card revoked. These are violations of law and leaving the United States for extended periods of time. Violations of laws include criminal and/or civil violations, not just immigration law violations. 

Lawful permanent residents are not permitted to leave the United States for longer than a specified amount of time. Typically, trips outside the United States cannot exceed one year. Therefore, if an individual wishes to keep their green card and/or lawful permanent resident status, they should avoid engaging in the aforementioned behaviors.

Violations That Can Cause Me to Lose My Green Card

One of the most common ways individuals lose their green card is by committing a violation of the law. Lawful permanent resident status may be revoked for civil and/or criminal violations, including those offenses that do not result in jail time. In addition, serious offenses may be grounds for immediate deportation.

Although minor violations may not cause an individual to lose their green card, the majority of crimes involving moral turpitude can. Crimes involving moral turpitude involve socially offensive behavior, including:

  • Lying;
  • Violence;
  • Stealing; and/or
  • Similar behaviors.

Lawful permanent residents are required to inform the immigration authorities of any change of address. These changes of address must be reported within 10 days of moving. This is one of the most common ways an individual can lose their green card and/or be deported. Although it may seem like a small offense, it is taken seriously by the authorities because it can appear an individual is attempting to evade immigration authorities.

Traveling Outside of the United States

In general, yes, an individual can travel outside the United States. However, an individual should avoid taking a trip outside the United States that lasts more than one year. An individual's green card can be revoked if it can be proven they intend to make another country their permanent home. If an individual remains outside the U.S. for longer than one year, it may be difficult for them to re-enter the country and they may be required to submit additional paperwork, including a re-entry permit.

How Can An Immigration Attorney Help Me when Applying for a Green Card?

There are many procedures and requirements that an immigrant must follow before they can be approved to receive a green card. If an applicant makes a mistake or provides false information on their application, this could have serious repercussions. Therefore, it may be in your best interest to hire a local immigration attorney if you wish to apply for a green card. 

An experienced immigration attorney will already be familiar with the relevant immigration laws and the entire green card process. Your attorney can assist you in completing your application, which can make this process more efficient and less complicated. They can also help you to determine which green card eligibility category is best suited to your particular circumstances. 

In some cases, your loved one may need assistance abroad. If that is the case, you can contact an immigration attorney on their behalf to get the process started more quickly. Finally, if there are any issues with your green card application, your attorney can explain what those issues may be as well as how to go about fixing them, so that you can be approved for a green card.