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  • Coming to the United States: The Pathways to Permanent Legal Residency

    Most recent immigrants living in the United States are undocumented. It's estimated that 12 million undocumented immigrants currently reside in the country. In 2007, just over a million immigrants (1,052,415) got "Green Cards," according to the Department of Homeland Security, and became Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs).

    The 3/10 Year Bar

    People often assume that illegal immigrants to the United States can automatically change their status by marrying a U.S. citizen. In fact, couples have to jump through multiple hoops to seek LPR status for the immigrant spouse. Success is far from guaranteed.

    Here's one reason: Immigrants who have been in the United States illegally are subject to a Department of Homeland Security regulation known as a "3/10 year bar". Those who have lived in the U.S. illegally for six to 12 months are prohibited from reentering the country for three years. The bar increases to ten years if the immigrant has been in the U.S. illegally for more than a year.

    The 3/10 year bar took effect in 1996 when Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act.

    Illegal immigrants who marry U.S. citizens must apply for a waiver from the Department of Homeland Security. To petition for a waiver, the citizen spouse must make a compelling case that he or she will endure "extreme hardship" as a result of the ban. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act does not include a formal definition of "extreme hardship" leaving it to consular adjudicators to decide the merits of each application.

    LPRs are entitled to some - but not all - of the rights that U.S. citizens enjoy. For instance, most LPRs can work, attend public schools and universities and enlist in the U.S. armed services. However, they cannot vote, hold public office, or participate in jury duty.

    There are currently four primary ways to pursue legal permanent residency in the United States.

    1. Family Sponsorship

    A U.S. citizen or LPR can apply to sponsor selected family members for a green card. The sponsor must prove he or she can financially support the immigrant relative at a rate 125 percent above the poverty line.

    Priority is given to certain relatives of U.S. citizens: spouses, parents and unmarried children. U.S. citizens may also apply to bring in selected other relatives, but fewer are admitted. LPRs may only apply to bring in a spouse or an unmarried child. Relatives may be denied entry for many reasons.

    In countries where there is a high demand for visas, applicants may wait for years and sometimes decades to have their paperwork reviewed. Currently, the longest wait is for the Filipino nationals who are the brothers and sisters of an adult U.S. citizen. Applications submitted in March of 1986 were being reviewed by consular officials in the Philippines as of July 2008 Ė a 22 year lag.

    Most people who receive green cards are beneficiaries of some kind of family sponsorship. In 2007, 65 percent of new green card recipients (or 689,820 people) were sponsored by a family member.

    If an immigrant is not eligible for family sponsorship, the chances of becoming a permanent legal resident through another channel are "less than 1 percent" for most applicants, says John Keller from the Immigrant Law Center in Saint Paul, MN. "Itís basically impossible," he says. But a relatively small number of immigrants do attain legal status each year through each of the remaining three methods:

    2. Employment-Based Preference

    Certain workers with exceptional skills may apply for employment visas. Unskilled workers may also be able to secure visas if there is a need for labor that canít be filled by American citizens.

    In addition, a limited number of visas are made available each year to investors who commit to invest $500,000 to $1,000,000 in a U.S.-based business venture that employs at least 10 U.S. citizens.

    In 2007, 162,176 immigrants (or 15.4 percent of the total) secured LPR status through an employment-based preference program.

    3. Diversity Visa Program

    Each year, up to 50,000 immigrants from designated countries with low rates of legal immigration to the United States can apply for permanent residency through the Diversity Visa Program, also known as the "Green Card Lottery."

    In 2007, 44,162 immigrants received their green cards through the lottery. To qualify, applicants must have the equivalent of a high school diploma, no criminal record, and two years of professional experience. Immigrants from countries with high levels of annual immigration to the United States (e.g. more than 50,000) cannot participate.

    4. Refugees and Asylees

    Immigrants who are victims or are at risk of persecution in their home countries may also apply for legal permanent residency.

    In 2007, 136,125 people received green cards this way, making up nearly 13 percent of the total LPR population.

    Other Immigrants

    In 2007, the United States awarded green cards to 22,167 additional applicants who qualified for visas through special legislation. These visa recipients include children born to alien residents, and beneficiaries of the Haitian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Act, among others.

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