What is a Green Card and How Do I Apply for One

What is a green card?

A green card is also sometimes called a permanent resident card. It is the document you receive when you become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Permanent residence is a type of immigrant visa that allows foreign nationals to live and work lawfully in the United States. Green card holders can also become U.S. citizens after three or five years of permanent residence status. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is responsible for approving green card application.

There are many ways to become a U.S. permanent resident, and there are several different green card types. There are family-based green cards, including marriage-based green cards for both same-sex and heterosexual couples. There are also humanitarian green cards, employment-based green cards, and other special categories of green cards.

What is the difference between a green card and citizenship?

Having a green card does not make you an American citizen. A green card is proof that USCIS has granted you permanent residence in the United States. While in permanent resident status, you can live and work lawfully in the United States but don’t have permission to vote in U.S. national elections. On the other hand, a U.S. citizen can live, work, and vote in all state and national elections. Green card holders can become U.S. citizens through the process of naturalization once they have been permanent residents for 3 or 5 years.

What are family-based green cards?

Family-based green cards allow immediate relatives of U.S. green card holders and U.S. citizens to live and work in the United States. “Immediate relatives” are close family members, namely spouses, parents, unmarried children, and siblings. Widows and widowers of U.S. citizens can also apply for this kind of green card.

There is a no different process for marriage-based green cards for same-sex couples under U.S. immigration law. As long as you can prove that you have a real and legal relationship with your U.S. citizen or green card-holding spouse, you can apply for the green card.

What are humanitarian green cards?

The U.S. government also gives some green cards to foreign nationals based on humanitarian reasons. People seeking refugee and asylum status, abuse and crime victims, and human trafficking victims can apply for this type of green card.

In general, the application process for humanitarian green cards is not simple. It would be best if you got an experienced immigration attorney’s guidance with it. The USA.gov website has free and low-cost legal services that you can access.

Humanitarian Green Cards for Refugees and Asylees

People who enter the United States as refugees and asylum seekers can apply for a green card to allow them to live and work lawfully in the United States.

By definition, refugees send their application from abroad to seek protection in the United States from the violence and persecution in their home country. Asylees, however, are those who fled into the United States before officially applying for protection.

Refugees and asylees can apply for a green card once they have been physically present in the United States for at least one year. Children and spouses of asylees may also get asylum status and eventually, a green card.

Humanitarian Green Cards for Abuse Victims

Through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), you can apply for a green card without your abusive relative knowing. The abusive relative could be a violent spouse, parent, or child who is a green card holder or U.S. citizen. USCIS will process these green card applications without letting the abusive relative know.

VAWA applies broadly to any applicant in an abusive situation. This means that not only women, but also LGBT-inclusive and transgender persons, men, children, and parents can apply for a green card under VAWA. An immigration lawyer can help you apply for this kind of green card for free or at a low cost on the USA.gov website.

If you, or someone you know, are a victim of abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You will get guidance on action plans and legal assistance. You can call the hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or, if you have a hearing disability, at 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

Humanitarian Green Cards for Crime Victims

Victims of serious crimes involving major physical and mental abuse can apply for a U visa first, and then a green card. The U visa is a special nonimmigrant visa for documented and undocumented foreign nationals, to seek protection against violent crimes like sexual assault, kidnapping, and torture.

Law enforcement officials must vouch for your eligibility for the U visa. You also have to agree to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute the crimes you’re seeking protection from.

A person with U visa status can apply for a green card if they pass other eligibility requirements like:

  • must have lived in the United States for at least three years before applying for the green card.
  • must not have left the United States between the time they submitted their green card application and when USCIS gave them a decision on their application.
  • must agree to assist U.S. police with crime investigations between the time USCIS granted their U visa and the time USCIS decided on their green card application.

If you think you qualify for the U visa or if you have a U visa and want to get a green card, talk to an immigration lawyer for assistance with the process.

Humanitarian Green Cards for Human-Trafficking Victims

Similarly, if you’re a victim of human trafficking in the United States, you can apply for a T visa. The T visa is a special immigrant visa that allows victims of human trafficking to live in the United States for up to 4 years. You can only apply for the T visa if you agree to assist law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting human trafficking crimes. However, if you’re under 18 years old, you don’t have to assist law enforcement in this way.

To qualify for a green card, a T visa holder must meet one of these physical presence conditions:

  • Physically present in the U.S. for three years since receiving the T visa.
  • Physically present in the U.S. for the entire duration of the human trafficking investigation or prosecution that they were the victim of.

They must also meet additional eligibility criteria, including but not limited to, the following:

  • Must not have been involved in criminal activity while in T visa status.
  • Must remain in T visa status at the time they apply for a green card.
  • Must demonstrate that they would experience extreme hardship if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) asks them to leave to their home country.