Immigrating to the United States is a lot easier if you have a family member or employer eligible to sponsor you. The U.S. Congress has made a policy choice that makes it straightforward for employers and U.S. relatives to sponsor immigrants seeking green cards (or permanent residency), but difficult for everyone else. Most immigrants either need a sponsor or they need to fit into one of the narrowly defined exceptions. This includes immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children and have lived here for as long as they can remember. If no one in their family is a U.S. citizen, they remain in the precarious position of every other undocumented immigrant, regardless of the U.S. being the only home they remember and speaking English as a first language.
There are exceptions, of course. Citizens of specific countries get preferential treatment. For example, Cuban nationals who manage to set foot on U.S. land have a relatively easy path toward permanent residency. (If, however, they are stopped while still at sea, they are sent home or to another country.)
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has a tiered system for family sponsorship. The first tier is for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, and there is no limit or quota on the number of green cards that can be issued each year. USCIS defines an immediate relative as a spouse, an unmarried child under the age of 21, or the parent of a child over the age of 21. The wait for immediate relatives is only a few months.
Other relatives are subject to quotas, if they are eligible for sponsorship at all. Relatives such as grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles are not eligible for sponsorship. Because of the quotas, the wait for a green card is several years for the children of U.S. citizens that are already over the age of 21, and the wait is currently well over a decade for the brothers or sisters of U.S. citizens. That’s one of the reasons that marrying a U.S. citizen is a common method for acquiring a green card.
You can also be sponsored through an employer or through a job, or if you have enough money to invest in the United States, you can sponsor yourself. Entrepreneurs who invest at least $1 million in the United States are eligible for a green card. Obviously, not many immigrants qualify for that category. Generally, employer based sponsorships go to immigrants with advanced degrees or who have “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.” The category is vague enough that many skills qualify, but it does require some specialized ability. Although there are quotas for employment based sponsors, the wait times tend to be significantly lower than many of the relative-based ones. So if you have an employer who is willing to sponsor you, that may be an attractive option.
As I mentioned before, there are a few narrowly defined exceptions that exist for humanitarian or policy reasons, such as for refugees seeking asylum. In future posts I will delve into those exceptions, but the largest category of green cards are given to immigrants who have someone to sponsor them.