The process of bringing a family member from a foreign country to the U.S. involves several stages. The U.S. sponsor handles some stages, while the foreign national handles other stages. The process starts when the U.S. sponsor, who can be a citizen or a green card holder, files Form I-130 with USCIS. This is the petition that notifies USCIS that the U.S. sponsor intends to bring a foreign family member to the U.S. Form I-130 contains information supporting the legitimacy of the family relationship. The U.S. sponsor will need to supplement the form with documents showing their citizenship or green card status, as well as documents proving their relationship to the foreign national. (In unusual cases involving the spouse of a deceased U.S. citizen or a spouse or child abused by a U.S. citizen, the foreign national can file a self-petition, which is Form I-360.)
If a U.S. sponsor is petitioning for a spouse, parent, or unmarried child who is under 21, and they already have legal status in the U.S., the foreign national will be classified as an immediate relative. Foreign nationals in this category do not need to wait for USCIS to approve Form I-130 before pursuing their green card application. Read more here about how one-step adjustment works.
USCIS Decision and Waiting Period
Once USCIS finishes reviewing the petition, potentially months or years later, it will decide whether to approve or deny it. If USCIS approves the petition, the National Visa Center will process the case. If the petition involves an immediate relative, the National Visa Center will ask the U.S. sponsor to complete Form I-864 (Affidavit of Support) and promptly send the case to a U.S. consulate in the home country of the foreign national.
If the petition does not involve an immediate relative, the foreign national will need to go through a waiting period before applying for a green card. This results from the annual caps placed on foreign nationals who can get family-based green cards. The backlog lasts for years in most cases but varies according to the type of relative and their home country. In August 2019, however, there will be no wait for spouses and unmarried children under 21 of green card holders. This is an unusual opportunity that likely will not last for long. It may be especially useful for dependents who are already living legally in the U.S. and can use the streamlined adjustment of status process.
If USCIS denies the petition, the sponsor can file a new petition that addresses the problem that resulted in the denial. (You can appeal a denial, but filing a new petition is usually more efficient.)
Applying for the Immigrant Visa or Green Card
The final stage of this process involves the foreign national’s application for a green card. If they live in the U.S. and have legal status there, they may be able to use the adjustment of status process. Read more here about who is eligible for adjustment of status. The foreign national should promptly apply for adjustment of status as soon as USCIS approves the I-130 petition. They will need to go through an interview at a USCIS office in the U.S. The USCIS official can grant permanent resident status at the interview or shortly afterward. If it is granted, the foreign national will get their green card without further issues.
More often, the foreign national will go through consular processing. This is the process for any foreign national who lives outside the U.S. or who is not eligible for adjustment of status. They will need to send specific documents to the U.S. consulate, go through a medical examination, and set up a personal interview at the consulate. (Read more here about consular interviews.) The consular officer will determine whether to grant the immigrant visa. If they approve the visa, the foreign national can enter the U.S. and then receive their green card within a few weeks.