What you need to know about getting a green card

Data from the U.S. Census shows that there were about 1.9 million immigrants living in New Jersey as of 2011, making up more than 20 percent of the state's population. About half of New Jersey's immigrants are naturalized U.S. citizens, and many others are green-card holders.

A green card is an immigrant identification card that identifies the cardholder as a legal permanent resident of the United States. People typically receive green cards based on eligibility through a family member or employer, but there are other ways to qualify for a green card in certain cases.

Becoming a legal permanent resident

When you receive a green card, your immigration status will be changed, or adjusted, to that of a legal permanent resident. Thus, the process of obtaining a green card is sometimes referred to as adjustment of status.

As a permanent resident, you will have the right to live in the United States indefinitely. For many people, this is the most important component of getting a green card, since it provides protection from deportation and eliminates the need to reapply for temporary visas.

Another important right that comes with getting a green card is the right to work legally in the United States. This is often referred to as employment authorization. With the exception of a small handful of jobs that are limited to U.S. citizens for security reasons, permanent residents of the United States can legally hold any position that they are otherwise qualified for.

Having a green card and being legally employable means that you will have access to the same rights and protections as other employees in the United States, including minimum wage laws, workers' compensation benefits and overtime pay. As a legal permanent resident, you will also be entitled to protection under all other laws of the federal government, as well as of the states and local government.

Getting a green card through family

One of the most common ways that foreign-born individuals can obtain a green card is through a family member who is a U.S. Citizen. Certain family members can become eligible for a green card through a relative without having to wait for a visa to become available. These include:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens
  • Parents of adult U.S. citizens
  • Unmarried minor children (under age 21) of U.S. citizens

Other family members can also qualify for a green card through a relative who is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, but they must first wait for a visa to become available. Visas are issued according to the following preference categories:

  • First: Unmarried, adult children (age 21 and older) of U.S. citizens
  • Second A: Spouses and unmarried minor children of permanent residents.
  • Second B: Unmarried adult children of permanent residents.
  • Third: Married children of U.S. citizens, as well as their spouses and minor children.
  • Fourth: Siblings of adult U.S. citizens, as well as their spouses and minor children.

There are also special visa types available for other family members of U.S. citizens, including fiancé/fiancée visas and widow/widower visas.

Getting a green card through work

Another way that many immigrants can qualify for a green card is through an employer. Employment-based visas are also granted according to several different preference categories, which include:

  • First: Priority workers and those with extraordinary abilities, including professors, researchers and international executives.
  • Second: Professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional abilities.
  • Third: Skilled workers and professionals.
  • Fourth: Religious workers and other special immigrants.
  • Fifth: Investors and entrepreneurs.

A number of other immigration options may be available to immigrant workers who do not qualify for an employment-based green card, including temporary visas and work authorization.

Other ways you may qualify for a green card

If you do not qualify for a green card sponsorship through your work or family, there may still be other options available for you to become a legal permanent resident of the United States.

One such option may be to apply for a green card through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. This program, which is often referred to as the "green card lottery," provides up to 50,000 green cards per year to immigrants from countries around the world. Applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States are given higher preference in the lottery.

In addition to the lottery, there are several other programs that make green cards available to immigrants who meet certain qualifications. For example, the Special Immigrant Juveniles (SIJ) program provides green cards for foreign-born children who have been abandoned, abused or neglected and cannot be reconnected with their parents.

Other programs exist for victims of domestic violence, human trafficking and other crimes, as well as for religious workers, refugees and many other categories of immigrants. An attorney with a background in immigration law can work with you to determine what your immigration options are and help you pursue the best option based on your own individual and family circumstances.

Criminal charges may affect immigration rights

Even though green-card holders are referred to as permanent residents, it does not mean that the rights they receive are irrevocable. In other words, even after you receive a green card, it is still possible to lose your status as a permanent resident under certain circumstances.

Specifically, your green card may be revoked if you are convicted of certain crimes. Therefore, it is important that you comply with all state, local and federal laws. This includes filing income tax returns and paying taxes, and, for males between the ages of 18 and 25, registering with the Selective Service. The Selective Service is a government agency that keeps track of individuals who can potentially be required to serve in the U.S. military.

It is also important that you discuss any previous criminal charges with your lawyer when you begin the process of applying for a green card. This will allow him or her to assess the potential impact on your immigration options and take that into account when helping you complete the application process.

Getting help from an immigration lawyer

Applying for a green card is a complicated and time-consuming process, and there is a lot that can go wrong along the way. If you make a mistake or forget something, it could cause lengthy delays or even result in your application being rejected. Therefore, it is a good idea to get help from a skilled immigration lawyer who can guide you through the process and advocate on your behalf at every step of the way.