Green cards

Definition: Identification cards issued by the federal government to aliens who qualify for permanent resident status and therefore have the right to live and work in the United States for indefinite periods

Significance: Immigrants without green cards have no legal right to reside permanently or to work in the United States. In addition to facing possible criminal charges and deportation by the federal government, undocumented aliens who attempt to work in the country are vulnerable to abuse from their employers and other unscrupulous persons because they cannot seek redress from the U.S. legal system.

Every alien who resides in the United States must be registered with the U.S. government, and those who wish to reside permanently are legally required to obtain green cards. Not every alien who applies for a green card receives one. The U.S. Congress decided that a highly skilled immigrant workforce is needed to sustain the nation’s economic progress and gave priority status to immigrants with exceptional talents, such as acclaimed actors, musicians, and painters. Immigrants with advanced academic degrees also receive priority.

Immigrants who qualify as priority workers are not required to go through the complicated and time-consuming procedure of obtaining labor certification to obtain their green cards. Formal certification procedures require prospective employers of applicants to demonstrate that no Americans or already established permanent residents are ready, willing, and able to take the jobs offered to the new immigrants at the wages that prevail. Labor certification is designed to guarantee that the employment of new immigrants will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of workers who are already resident in the areas in which the jobs are performed.

Green Card Fraud

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services imposes requirements for immigrants not applied to U.S. citizens because immigrants lack the protections of American citizenship. Aliens over the age of eighteen who are permanent residents must at all times carry valid green cards or risk being found guilty of a misdemeanor. Immigrants who leave the United States for periods of more than six months risk losing their green cards on the principle that long absences from the country may betray lack of interest in residing in the United States. Immigrants can also lose their green cards by failing to report changes of address or for committing crimes.

Immigrants can obtain green cards by marrying American citizens or permanent residents. One of the best-known provisions of immigration law, this principle has often led to abuses. During the early 1980’s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service reported that as many as onehalf of all petitions for green cards based on marriages were fraudulent, as they were entered into solely for the purpose of obtaining green cards. In 1986, Congress responded to these concerns by passing the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments to eliminate as many “paper marriages,” or “marriages of convenience,” as possible. American citizens and permanent residents who conspire with would-be immigrants to evade immigration laws by means of fraudulent marriages can be charged with federal crimes. Permanent residents convicted of this crime can be deported. Both permanent residents and U.S. citizens convicted of the crime can serve jail time, be fined, or both. Immigrants who are proven guilty of fraud permanently lose all chance of ever living legally in the United States.

Los Angeles Immigration and Naturalization Service officer
Salvadoran immigrant being fingerprinted by a Los Angeles Immigration and Naturalization Service officer while renewing his green card in 1999. (AP/Wide World Photos)

When applications for new or renewed permanent resident cards are denied, applicants are sent letters detailing the reasons. Immigrants cannot appeal negative decisions. They can, however, submit motions to have their denials reconsidered when new facts can be presented or their denials can be shown to have been based on incorrect applications of law or immigration policy.

Why Green?

Despite their popular name, “green cards” have not always been green. Officially known as Alien Registration Receipt Cards, they were first introduced during the 1940’s, when the federal government issued them on green plastic. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, however, the government issued the cards on blue stock. During the 1980’s, the cards became white stock, and during the 1990’s they were pink.

Through all these color changes, the cards have always included their owners’ photographs, federal registration numbers, dates of birth, and ports of entry into the United States. The cards are generally issued for periods of ten years, but they can be renewed indefinitely.

Obtaining Green Cards

Aprimary goal of U.S. immigration law is to help keep immigrant families together. Consequently, immediate relatives of American citizens are guaranteed green cards. Immigrants who overstay their visas or work without authorization can still qualify for green cards if they are the minor children of legal residents or the parents of adult American citizens. Classes of immigrants who cannot qualify for green cards after they are in the United States include stowaways, aliens who have failed to follow deportation orders, or those who have failed to appear at scheduled removal proceedings or asylum interviews.

The federal Immigration Act of 1990 permitted a total of 675,000 immigrants to obtain green cards each year, and each individual country can send up to 25,620 immigrants to the United States. Demand for visas in some countries, notably Mexico and the Philippines, typically greatly exceeds supply, requiring applicants from those countries to wait for years to obtain immigration documents from the United States.

Each year, the U.S. State Department conducts a free Diversity Visa lottery that is also known as the “green card lottery” to distribute applications randomly for 50,000 green cards. Winners of the lottery are given the opportunity to apply for visas but no guarantees that they will receive them. Lottery entrants must be fromeligible countries—which vary from year to year—and have at least twelve years of education or two years of skilled work experience. The lotteries have become the targets of scam artists who claim that they can increase wouldbe immigrants’ chances of winning the lottery for a price.

Caryn E. Neumann

Further Reading

  • Anosike, Benji O. How to Obtain Your U.S. Immigration Visa for a Temporary Stay: The Non-Immigrant Visa Kit. Newark, N.J.: Do-It-Yourself Legal Publishers, 2003. Detailed, practical manual explaining almost every imaginable procedure in obtaining documentation to immigrate legally. 
  • Bray, Ilona M. Fiancé and Marriage Visas: A Couple’s Guide to U.S. Immigration. 5th ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo, 2008. How-to book that provides a good, easy-to-follow guide to immigration policies on marriage issues, including the awarding of green cards. 
  • Cortes, Luis, Jr. A Simple Guide to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship. New York: Atria Books, 2008. Useful and up-to-date manual for immigrants working to become U.S. citizens. 
  • Farrell, Mary H. J. “For Immigrants Trying to Obtain the Coveted Green Card, Marriage May Be a Treacherous Strategy.” People Weekly, February 25, 1991, 93-96. Interesting article on legitimate and fraudulent marriages entered into for the purpose of obtaining green cards. 
  • Lewis, Loida Nicolas. How to Get a Green Card: Legal Ways to Stay in the U.S.A. 6th ed. Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo, 2005. Practical handbook offering stepby- step guidance on obtaining green cards. 

See also: Deportation; Due process protections; Employment; Families; Illegal immigration; Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.; Immigration law; “Marriages of convenience”; Passports; Permanent resident status; Resident aliens.

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