Immigrant Visa Classifications

In order for a foreign national to live and work permanently in the U.S., he or she must become a Permanent Resident. This is a lengthy and complicated process requiring permission to immigrate to the U.S. from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Permanent Residents are issued a Resident Alien Card (commonly known as a "Green Card") which serves as proof of immigration status.

Permanent Residency in the U.S. may be obtained through a variety of means, including sponsorship by a close relative who is already a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, sponsorship through employment, diversity lottery programs, refugee or asylum status, employment creation and investment, special executive order of the President, and a handful of other miscellaneous methods.

Congress sets an annual cap on the total number of immigrant visas which will be granted each year. The total number is divided into two categories: family or employment. Immediate family members of U.S. citizens (spouses and unmarried minor children) are exempt from these allocations while Refugees, asylees, and special programs such as the diversity lottery are allocated separately on a yearly basis. Each country is allocated an equal number of visas which are available only to citizens of that country. Currently, each country receives 7% of the total number available in both the family and employment categories.

Some countries traditionally have low rates of immigration to the U.S. and often do not utilize all the visas granted to them. Citizens of these countries are eligible for U.S. permanent residency as soon as permission has been granted by the USCIS. Other countries have a need for many more visas then they are allocated on an annual basis which results in a backlog. When this happens, a waiting list is created and citizens of the "over-subscribed" country must wait for an immigrant visa number to become available before they are eligible to become U.S. residents.

To further complicate the process, immigrant visas are divided into preference systems and priority dates. The preference system refers to one of the various categories under which an individual qualifies for U.S. residency. Each preference category is allocated a specific number of visas.

The family category consists of five preference categories:

  • unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens ;
  • a) spouses and children under the age of 21 of U.S. permanent residents, and b) unmarried sons and daughters over the age of 21 of U. S. permanent residents;
  • married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens;
  • brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.

There is also a separate preference for immediate relatives (spouses, mothers and fathers, etc.) of U.S. citizens which are not subject to numerical allocations.

The employment category also contains five preferences:

  • Priority Workers which include Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, Outstanding Professors and Researchers, and Multi-national Executives and Managers;
  • Members of the Profession Holding Advanced Degrees, or Persons of Exceptional Ability;
  • Skilled Workers, Professional and Other Workers;
  • Certain Special Immigrants; and
  • Employment Creation (individuals who invest $1,000,000 or more in a private enterprise which employs a minimum of 10 U.S. workers).

Priority date refers to the date an application for an immigrant visa is received by USCIS or a labor certification is received by the Department of Labor.

In order to be eligible to obtain an immigrant visa to reside permanently in the United States, the foreign national must have a priority date which is current in a specific preference category. If the priority date is not current, an immigrant visa is not available and the foreign national must take his/her place on the waiting list. In these cases, the foreign national cannot become a permanent resident until an immigrant visa number becomes available for the country of citizenship in the preference category under which he qualifies.

Depending upon the particular preference category, the wait might be anywhere from a few months to 10 years or more. During this time the foreign national must either maintain valid non-immigrant status in the U.S. or return home to await visa availability.

Once a foreign national is actually granted U.S. residency an Alien Registration Card (Green Card) is issued to the principal applicant and his/her spouse and minor children. Green Cards are issued in ten year increments and must be renewed.

Permanent residents are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship five years after becoming a resident through employment, or three years after acquiring residency through marriage to a U.S. citizen.

The University of New Hampshire has a policy for sponsorship of its permanent employees for U.S. residency through employment.

The State Department publishes a bulletin in which you can check on the availability of an immigrant visa for your country.


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