Family Immigration Categories for Green Cards and Visas

The USCIS (formerly the INS) understands the importance of keeping the family together and family reunification is an important theme in the immigration laws. However, family-sponsored immigration is difficult and can be complex. Detailed attention to deadlines, definitions, and the interplay of numerous provisions of the immigration code is key to successfully bring a family member to the United States.

Obtaining a Green Card for a Foreign Family Member

Not all family relationships serve as a basis to apply for a green card (i.e., to become a lawful permanent resident LPR). Under the immigration laws there are two basic groups:

  1. Immediate Relatives
  2. Preference Immigrants

Depending on whether you are considered an “immediate relative” or a “preference immigrant” governs the waiting times for your ability to file for your green card. The difference in the definition of each, and the waiting times for the different categories sheds light on what the U.S. government believes is the most important familial relationships necessitating a quicker processing time.

Immediate Relatives Include
  1. Spouses of U.S. citizens
  2. Minor unmarried children (under 21 years of age) of U.S. citizens
  3. Parents of U.S. citizens provided the citizen petitioner is at least 21 years of age; and
  4. Spouses of deceased U.S. citizens who were married for at least two years at the time of their citizen spouse’s death provided the couple was not legally separated at the time of death, the alien spouse files the immediate relative petition within two years of death and the alien does not remarry.

The principal benefit of being an immediate relative is that there is no limitation to the number of immediate relative immigrant visas per year. This means that if you are a U.S. citizen over the age of 21 and would like to bring your mother to the United States, there will be no wait for you to file for her green card (I-485). It can all be done at once hastening the process of bringing her to the U.S. to reside here permanently. With current processing times, this can mean that your mother may obtain her green card within 6-10 months! The U.S. understands the importance of keeping families united and has created a system that benefits the closest familial relationships by allowing U.S. citizen relatives to petition for certain family members’ green cards in a relatively expeditious manner.

Other family members are subject to the annual cap. These family members are seen as less close as immediate relatives, which increases the wait time to obtain lawful permanent residence in the U.S. They are the “preference Immigrants.”

Preference Immigrants Include
  1. First Preference – unmarried children of U.S. citizens (i.e., who are 21 years of age or older)
  2. Second Preference – spouse or children of LPRs (2A), or unmarried children of LPRs (2B)
  3. Third Preference – married sons or daughters of U.S. citizens
  4. Fourth Preference – brothers or sisters of U.S. citizens 21 years of age or older

The preference category relatives must wait in a much longer line for their opportunity to apply for a green card. It is advisable to file the petition for alien relative for preference immigrants as soon as possible. The green card priority date is established by such filing. The wait may be long and excruciating but it may be the only method by which those foreign nationals may ever come to the U.S. on a permanent basis.


There are many issues and scenarios that may arise within these simple groups of relatives that can affect a green card case. For example, a fourth preference immigrant brother of a U.S. may have been waiting for five years for his green card and one day he meets a U.S. citizen, falls in love, gets married and becomes an immediate relative. Depending on where he is located, he will be eligible for a K-3 visa or to process his green card a consulate abroad. Also children may be born to foreign nationals waiting for their green cards. Issues such as these complicate the process making it advisable to seek the expertise of experienced immigration counsel.

Contact The Law Firm of Shihab & Associates for a complete analysis of your case. Our lawyers are experienced and ethical and will share with you the nuances of the immigration process. They have represented thousands of clients successfully before the federal government. For a free initial consultation, call us at (800) 625-3404 or by email.

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