In U.S. immigration law, immigrants can gain legal resident status through relatives who are either green card holders or U.S. citizens. There are two classifications of relatives: immediate relatives and preference relatives. An immediate relative is the spouse of a U.S. citizen, the unmarried child under 21 years of age of a U.S. citizen, or the parent of a U.S. citizen (if the U.S. citizen is 21 or older). Therefore, if you are any of these three categories, you qualify as being an immediate relative to a U.S. citizen and can ask them to petition for you to live legally in the United States.

You can also apply for a green card as a preference relative. There are four tiers of preference relatives. The first is unmarried sons and daughters who are 21 years or older of U.S. citizens. The second preference tier is spouses and children (who are unmarried and under 21) of lawful permanent residents. This tier also includes unmarried sons and daughters (who are at least 21 years old) of lawful permanent residents. The third tier is married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. Finally, the fourth preference is brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen is at least 21 years old. The difference among these tiers is that the higher ones generally have less waiting time, although it varies greatly depending on the immigrant’s country of birth.

There are many differences between applying for a green card as an immediate relative or as a preference relative. One such difference is that with preference relatives, derivative beneficiaries can benefit as well. What this means is that if the primary beneficiary’s family preference petition is approved, their spouse or minor children may also be eligible to receive a green card. On the other hand, immediate relative petitions are only for the primary beneficiary, and do not have any benefits for anyone else other than that one immigrant. In other words, the primary beneficiary’s minor children and/or spouse must have their own petitions filed and qualify for a green card independent of their parent/spouse.

Another key difference between the two categories of relatives is that while there are almost always immigrant visas and green cards available to immediate relative petition beneficiaries, family preference petitions have a numerical limit each fiscal year. This is because the demand for family preference visas is much higher than the supply, due to the possibility of immigrating an entire family at once. Preference petition beneficiaries are assigned priority dates and have to wait until their date is “current,” according to the U.S. State Department’s Visa Bulletin, before they can get their visa or green card. The Visa Bulletin is a monthly publication that reveals wait times for certain green card applicants.

The final major difference is if the alien relative entered the United States legally but has fallen out of status.  In that situation an immediate relative may adjust their status but the preference relative may not and they must leave the United States to process at the Consulate.

At the Shulman Law Group, we are poised to help clarify and delineate the different categories of familial sponsorship and would be delighted to help you and your loved ones with their petitions in order to achieve lawful permanent residency in the United States.