FAQs


Legal Fees, Billing and Application Fee Waivers

How does the MAS Immigrant Justice Center charge for service and is the a fee waiver?

A:

Most procedures are undertaken on a minimal flat-fee basis. The USCIS and other applicable fees are clearly indicated so that our clients understand the totality of the costs associated with the work that has been requested. For some very unusual cases we do charge fees on an hourly basis after discussion with the client.

Generally, a partial payment is due with the Legal Representation Agreement (LRA) before any work can begin. The balance is paid in part, at each stage of your process. You will receive an invoice for each payment that is to be made.

Application (Processing) Fee waivers are available for those who qualify.  Qualification is based on criteria provided by the USCIS.

CURRENT LEGAL FEES

Green Card Qualification

What are the qualifications to obtain a green card (U.S. permanent residence)?

A:

A green card identifies its holder as a U.S. permanent resident, with rights to enter, exit, work, and live in the United States for their entire life -- and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. But before you think about applying for U.S. permanent residence, make sure you're eligible under one of the following categories.

1. Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

Immediate relatives are at the top of the list when it comes to qualifying for green cards and receiving them quickly. This category includes:

    • spouses of U.S. citizens, including recent widows and widowers; also including same-sex spouses, if the marriage is considered legally valid in the state or    country where it took place
    • unmarried people under age 21 with at least one U.S. citizen parent
    • parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is at least age 21
    • stepchildren and stepparents of U.S. citizens, if the marriage creating the stepparent/stepchild relationship took place before the child's 18th birthday, and
    • adopted children of U.S, if the adoption took place before the child reached age 16.

An unlimited number of green cards are available for immediate relatives whose U.S. citizen relatives petition for them -- applicants can get a green card as soon as they get through the paperwork and application process.

2. Other Family Members

Certain family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents are also eligible for green cards -- but not right away. They fall into the "preference categories" listed below, meaning that only a certain number of them will receive green cards each year (480,000). The system is first come, first served -- the earlier the U.S. citizen or permanent resident turns in a visa petition, the sooner the immigrant can apply for a green card. The waits range from approximately four to 23 years in the family preference categories, which include:

    • Family First Preference. Unmarried adults, age 21 or older, who have at least   one U.S. citizen parent.
    • Family Second Preference. Section 2A: Spouses and unmarried children of a   green card holder, so long as the children are younger than age 21. Section 2B: Unmarried children age 21 or older of a green card holder.
    • Family Third Preference. Married people, any age, who have at least one U.S.   citizen parent.
    • Family Fourth Preference. Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the citizen is age 21 or older.

Because of high demand, the waits for people from China, the Dominican Republic, India, Mexico, and the Philippines tend to be particularly long.

3. Preferred Employees and Workers

A total of 140,000 green cards are offered each year to people whose job skills are needed in the U.S. market. In most cases, a job offer is also required, and the employer must prove that it has recruited for the job and not found any willing, able, qualified U.S. citizens or residents to hire instead of the immigrant. Because of annual limits, this is a "preference category," and applicants often wait years for an available green card. Here are the subcategories:

Employment First Preference. Priority workers, including:

    • persons of extraordinary ability in the arts, the sciences, education, business, or athletics
    • outstanding professors and researchers, and
    • managers and executives of multinational companies.

Employment Second Preference. Professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability.

Employment Third Preference. Professionals and skilled or unskilled workers.

Employment Fourth Preference. Religious workers and miscellaneous categories of workers and other "special immigrants" (described below).

Employment Fifth Preference. Investors willing to put $1 million into a U.S. business -- or $500,000 if the business is in an economically depressed area. The business must employ at least ten workers.

4. Green Card Lotteries: Ethnic Diversity

A certain number of green cards (currently 50,000) are made available to people from countries that in recent years have sent the fewest immigrants to the United States.

5. Special Immigrants

Occasionally, laws are passed making green cards available to people in special situations. The current special immigrant categories are:

    • clergy and other religious workers for legitimate religious organizations
    • foreign medical graduates who have been in the United States since 1978
    • former employees of the Panama Canal Zone
    • foreign workers who were longtime employees of the U.S. government
    • retired officers or employees of certain international organizations who have     lived in the United States for a certain time
    • foreign workers who were employees of the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong for at least three years
    • foreign children who have been declared dependent in juvenile courts in the United States international broadcasting employees, and certain members of the U.S. Armed Forces who enlisted overseas and served 12 years.

Grounds of Deportability: When Legal U.S. Residents Can Be Removed

When can U.S. Legal Residents be removed from the country?

A:

Whether on a nonimmigrant visa or green card, committing certain acts or crimes can make a person deportable from the U.S.

Although people who carry nonimmigrant visas or green card holder have the right to be in the United States, such rights depend entirely on them following certain rules and avoiding certain types of legal violations. The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) sets forth numerous grounds upon which a non-citizen may be deported (removed) back to the person’s country of origin.

The grounds of deportability can be found in Section 237 of the I.N.A. They apply to anyone already legally living within the United States, perhaps with a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa or a green card (lawful permanent residence). The law also mentions that people who are in the U.S. without legal permission shall be deported.

Only after an immigrant has successfully become a U.S. citizen, is he or she safe from the grounds of deportability. U.S. citizens cannot be removed unless they used fraud to gain their green card or citizenship.

Briefly summarized, a person may be deportable from the U.S. if he or she:

    1. was inadmissible at time of U.S. entry or of adjustment of status, or violates the terms of his or her visa, green card, or other status.
    2. was a conditional permanent resident status (applicable to certain spouses,    sons, and daughters of U.S. citizens as well as investor/entrepreneurs, with their spouses, and children) but had this status terminated.
    3. before, during, or within five years of the date of any U.S. entry, knowingly helped smuggle any other alien trying to enter the United States.
    4. committed marriage fraud.
    5. got married less than two years before getting a U.S. green card on that basis, then has the marriage annulled or terminated within the following two years, unless the immigrant can prove that the marriage was not a fraud, meant to evade any provision of the immigration laws.
    6. is convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude that was committed within five years ) after the date of U.S. admission (or ten years if the person received a green card as a criminal informant and is punishable by a sentence of at least one year.
    7. has been convicted of two or more crimes involving moral turpitude at any time after U.S. admission, where the two crimes did not arise out of a single scheme of misconduct.
    8. has been convicted of an aggravated felony at any time after U.S. admission.
    9. has been convicted of high-speed flight from an immigration checkpoint.
    10. fails to register as a sex offender.
    11. has been convicted of a drug crime (or a conspiracy or attempt to commit one), whether in the U.S. or another country, at any time after U.S. admission. There’s an exception for a single offense involving possession for personal use of 30 grams or less of marijuana.
    12. is, or at any time after U.S. admission has been, a drug abuser or addict. Notice that no actual court conviction is needed to be deportable under this section. The person’s own confession to drug use, or evidence on a medical report, could be enough.
    13. has been convicted of illegally buying, selling, possessing, or engaging in other transactions concerning firearms, weapons, or destructive devices, at any time after U.S. admission.
    14. has been convicted of committing, or conspiring to commit espionage, sabotage, treason, or sedition, if punishable by at least five years in prison.
    15. has violated  the Military Selective Service Act or the Trading With the Enemy Act.
    16. has violated certain travel and documentation restrictions or imported aliens for immoral purposes.
    17. has been convicted of domestic violence, stalking, child abuse, child neglect, or child abandonment, at any time after U.S. admission.
    18. has violated the portion of a protective order that is meant to stop credible threats of violence, repeated harassment, or bodily injury.
    19. has committed or conspired to commit human trafficking inside or outside the U.S. or has apparently been a knowing aider, abettor, assister, conspirator, or colluder with in severe forms of human trafficking; or is the trafficker’s spouse, or          daughter who, within the past five years, knowingly received any financial or     other benefit from the illicit activity.
    20. ailed to advise the immigration authorities, in writing, of a change of address within ten days of the move, unless the person can prove that such failure was reasonably excusable or not willful.
    21. has been convicted of providing false information in connection with a requirement to register with immigration authorities or of other violations relating to fraud and misuse of visas, permits, and other entry documents.
    22. has received a final order of deportation for document fraud, forgery, counterfeiting, or related violations.
    23. falsely represents himself or herself as a U.S. citizen in order to gain any immigration or other benefit. An exception is made if the person’s parents (natural or adoptive) are or were U.S. citizens, the person lived in the United States before age 16, and the person reasonably believed himself or herself to be a U.S. citizen.
    24. is engaged, or at any time after admission engages in espionage, sabotage, or violations or evasions of any law prohibiting export of goods, technology, or sensitive information, or in any other criminal activity that is a danger to public safety or national security, or acts in opposition to, or attempts to control or overthrow the U.S. government by force, violence, or other unlawful means.
    25. has engaged in or appears likely to engage in terrorist activity, or has incited terrorist activity, or is a representative a terrorist organization or group that endorses or espouses terrorist activity, or is a member of a terrorist organization          (unless the person proves that he had no idea of its terrorist aims), or endorses or espouses terrorist activity or persuades others to do so, or has received military-type training from or on behalf a terrorist organization, or is the terrorist’s spouse or child, if the relevant activity took place within the last five years.
    26. by being present in the U.S., would create potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences.
    27. participated in Nazi persecution, genocide, torture, or extrajudicial killings, severe violations of religious freedom, or recruitment or use of child soldiers.
    28. within five years after U.S. entry, has become a public charge (dependent on need-based government assistance) for reasons that did not arise after the person’s U.S. entry.
    29. has voted in violation of any federal, state, or local law. An exception is made for people who, based on parentage, reasonably believed themselves to be U.S. citizens.

Even if the immigration authorities believe that you are deportable, you will not be kicked out of the country right away. In most cases (unless, for example, there is an outstanding order of removal in your file), you have a right to defend your case in immigration court. For some types of deportability, the law may provide a waiver (legal forgiveness) that you can apply for. Definitely get expert help from a lawyer's help if you are facing removal proceedings or believe you may have become deportable.

Crimes that Make an Immigrant Deportable

What crimes make an immigrant deportable?

A:

How crimes of moral turpitude, aggravated felonies, and other crimes can make even a green card holder deportable from the U.S.

All immigrants, including those with green cards, can be deported if they violate U.S. immigration laws. The most common reason for people to be placed into removal proceedings is because there is evidence that they have committed a crime.

Specifically, immigrants can be deported if they commit either what is called a "crime of moral turpitude" under certain conditions described in this article, or an "aggravated felony," unless the crime counts as a petty offense. In addition, certain crimes are specifically listed within the immigration laws as being grounds of deportability.

This section addresses what criminal convictions will cause a person to get into trouble as well as whether any recourse may be available to the offender.

 

What Counts as a Crime of Moral Turpitude Under Immigration Law

"Crimes of moral turpitude" are not well defined in U.S. immigration law. However, the Department of State has provided guidance, noting that the most common elements of a moral turpitude crime will include "fraud, larceny, and intent to harm persons or things." Crimes involving dishonesty and theft will almost always be considered crimes of moral turpitude. Other examples would be assault with the intent to rob or kill, spousal abuse, and aggravated driving under the influence ("DUI" or "DWI").

As there are too many examples of crimes that have been found to involve moral turpitude to list here, it is safest to take a certified disposition of your offense (obtained from the clerk of the court where your case was heard) to a criminal or immigration attorney in order to learn whether your particular type of conviction has been found to be one.

 When evaluating whether a crime involves moral turpitude, U.S. courts will examine the elements of the crime first and then compare them to "the generic definition of a crime involving moral turpitude." (This comes from the court case Castrijon-Garcia v. Holder, No. 09-73756, January 9, 2013.)

 

It may be possible to argue that your conviction should not be classified as a crime of moral turpitude, or that the statute that you violated contains elements that would not always pertain to a crime of moral turpitude. These types of defenses will be highly dependent upon the wording of the statute under which you were convicted. Criminal statutes almost always come from state law, so you may be raising brand new questions about how these statutes are interpreted under federal immigration law.

 

A Petty Offense Exception May Excuse a Crime of Moral Turpitude

Immigration law provides that a crime can escape classification as a crime of moral turpitude if it is a "petty offense." The petty offense exception applies if the penalty for the crime committed could never exceed one year of imprisonment, and if any time the person actually served in prison was less than six months.

Examples of petty offenses could include shoplifting, simple assault, or a DUI that did not involve driving without a license or damage to property or persons, depending on the law in your state.

 

When a Person May Be Deported for a Crime of Moral Turpitude

There are two different ways that committing a crime of moral turpitude will put you into removal (deportation) proceedings:

1) You commit a crime of moral turpitude during the first five years after your admission to the United States.

2) You commit two or more crimes of moral turpitude that did not arise out of a single scheme of criminal misconduct at any time after your admission to the United States.

Keep reading to learn more about how to determine whether you are at risk of deportation for a crime involving moral turpitude.

 

Determining Whether You Committed a Crime Within Five Years of Admission

In order to know whether you committed your crime within five years after your admission to the U.S., you must first start with the date when the crime was committed and then count back five years. If you were legally admitted to the U.S. from the border, airport, or any other point of entry during those five years, you may be placed into removal proceedings. If more than five years have passed since the date you were admitted, then you are not deportable.

For example, if you entered the United States in 2001 as an F-1 student, received your green card while here in 2006 ("adjustment of status"), and committed a crime of moral turpitude in 2008, you are not deportable, because more than five years passed from the date of your admission as a student. In some situations the date that applicants adjust to permanent residence is also treated as a date of admission, but this will not apply in most situations when determining whether an immigrant is deportable.

 

Determining Whether You Are Deportable for Multiple Crimes of Moral Turpitude

You can also lose your green card and be placed into removal proceedings if you have committed more than one crime involving moral turpitude, regardless of when the crimes occurred. However, if multiple crimes "arise from a single scheme of criminal misconduct" they will be considered only one crime when determining deportability. Whether this rule applies will depend on the circumstances of the case.

For example, if someone had two different robbery convictions but both robberies occurred at the same location and around the same time, those offenses arose from a single scheme of misconduct. If a person had two robbery convictions and the incidents occurred on two different dates and at two different locations, then the offenses did not arise from a single scheme of misconduct and the person is likely deportable for multiple crimes involving moral turpitude.

Unlike with a single crime of moral turpitude, once you commit two crimes of moral turpitude not arising from the same scheme of criminal misconduct, you can be deported no matter how much time has passed since your last entry ("admission") to the United States. There is no five year "look-back" period. 

 

A Waiver May Be Available for a Crime of Moral Turpitude

There are a few situations in which you may be able to apply for a waiver of a crime of moral turpitude under Section 212(h) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.). A "waiver" is a form of legal forgiveness that would allow you to avoid deportation. In order to qualify, you must never have committed an aggravated felony, you cannot be a threat to national security, and you must have lived within the U.S. continuously for at least seven years.

Some examples of situations that may be waiver-eligible include possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana, crimes related to prostitution, or crimes that were committed more than 15 years ago.

You can also apply for a 212(h) waiver if you can show that you self-petitioned for your green card under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) because you suffered physical or emotional abuse at the hands of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent, or that your deportation would cause extreme hardship to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse, parent, or child.

Ultimately, your success in obtaining a 212(h) waiver will depend on the level of violence involved in any crimes committed, proof of rehabilitation, and other factors showing that you deserve a second chance.

 

What Is An Aggravated Felony?

The full list of crimes that are considered aggravated felonies under immigration law (which is different from criminal law) is extensive and may be found in the Immigration and Nationality Act at I.N.A. § 101(a)(43). It includes such crimes as murder; rape; drug or firearms trafficking; sexual abuse of a minor; child pornography; money laundering, fraud or tax evasion involving more than $10,000; theft or violent crime with a sentence order of at least one year (it is irrelevant if it was suspended or if you only had to serve part of it); espionage, sabotage, or treason; perjury with a sentence of at least one year; and more.

If you were convicted of an aggravated felony at any time, there will be very little that you can do to avoid deportation, unless you can prove it is more likely than not that you would be tortured in your native country upon return. A waiver to return to the U.S. will not be available for any purpose. You should obtain competent counsel who can help you avoid an aggravated felony conviction that will permanently render you inadmissible to the United States.

 

Other Crimes That Can Make an Immigrant Deportable

The full list of crimes and other grounds of deportability is in Section 237 of the I.N.A. It lists things like drug crimes, illegal firearms possession or sales, espionage, domestic violence, stalking, child abuse or neglect, human trafficking, terrorist activity, and more. In some cases, the crimes on this list might also be considered crimes of moral turpitude or aggravated felonies. By listing them separately, however, the law ensures that immigrants cannot attempt to defend against deportation by arguing about whether or not the conviction should count as a crime of moral turpitude or aggravated felony.

VAWA Protection for Abused Spouses and Children

Do abused spouses and children have protection under the law?

A:

Immigrant spouses and children of U.S. citizens and permanent residents have, in the past, been vulnerable to abuse by the very people who should have been helping them adjust to life in the United States and successfully complete the process of receiving U.S. lawful permanent residence (a green card.) Until the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994, all the abuser had to do was threaten to stop helping the immigrant get a green card, and the abuser had a powerful method which which to assure that the immigrant would remain quiet and compliant. Fortunately, VAWA undid this power dynamic, by creating a means for the immigrant spouse or child to "self petition" for the green card or otherwise take control of the process at a later phase -- provided that the immigrant is able to prove the history of abuse.

 

One of the immigration benefits to the law known as the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) is that spouses and children who experience abuse by their U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident spouse or parent no longer have to rely on the abuser to help them obtain lawful status in the United States. Before this law was passed (in 1994), many people felt trapped in relationships with abusive family members who threatened to withhold filing the immigration petitions required to get the green card application process started and completed.

This article will help you determine whether you can benefit from the VAWA law.

The Seven Requirements of VAWA

In order to qualify for a green card under VAWA, you must prove that you meet all of the following requirements.

  1. The abuser is (or was) a U.S. citizen (USC) or Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). You may still file a petition under VAWA if the abuse occurred before the abuser became a citizen or green card holder. In addition, you can file a petition under VAWA even if the abuser loses his or her green card or citizenship. One thing to consider is that if the abuser loses his or her permanent resident status because of an incident of domestic violence (which is a ground of deportability), you must file the petition within two years of the abuser losing status.
  2. You are (or were) the spouse of an LPR or USC abuser, or the parent of a child who was abused by your LPR or USC spouse. There are several important points to keep in mind with this requirement. First, if the marriage ends because of abuse, you can still file a VAWA petition within two years of the end of the marriage. Similarly, if the abuser dies, you can file a VAWA petition within two years of the death. If the marriage ends after a petition is filed, then it has no effect on the VAWA petition. Finally, if you remarry prior to the approval of your VAWA petition, the petition will be denied. Therefore, it is important that you not marry again if you are considering filing a VAWA petition.
  3. The LPR or USC abused you during the marriage. The law requires the self-petitioner to show that he or she “has been battered or has been the subject of extreme cruelty” by the LPR or USC. You do not have to show both. USCIS has found that many things qualify under this standard including being physically hit, punched, slapped, kicked, or otherwise hurt. Sexual abuse may also qualify as "battery." In addition, USCIS will consider emotional abuse, controlling behaviors, threats to harm or deport you, forcibly detaining you against your will, and other behaviors used to scare you. This is not an exhaustive list, and USCIS will consider the totality of the circumstances when deciding whether you have been subjected to battery or extreme cruelty.
  4. You entered the marriage in “good faith.” This basically means that you did not enter the marriage with your LPR or USC spouse solely in order to obtain a green card. If the marriage is fraudulent, you will not qualify for a green card through VAWA, just as you would not qualify for a green card using the normal petitioning procedures.
  5. You must reside in the United States or fall within one of the few exceptions to this rule. Generally you must reside in the United States in order to file a petition under VAWA. However, you can file even if you are living abroad if the abuser is an employee of the U.S. government or armed services, or the abuse occurred in the United States.
  6. You must have lived with the LPR or USC abuser at some point. There is no length of time that you must have lived with the abuser and you do not have to currently be living with the abuser when you file for VAWA benefits. You can qualify under VAWA even if you lived with the abuser for only a short time. The VAWA law does not specify what it means to ‘live with’ the abuser, so even if you only spent a short amount of time in the same house or apartment with the abuser, this may be enough to meet this requirement.
  7. You must be a person of good moral character. In order to qualify for relief under VAWA , you have been a person of good moral character for at least the past three years. Some things that may prevent you from showing good moral character are: crimes, being a habitual drunkard, using drugs, illegal gambling, lying under oath, or persecuting or harming others.

As part of the application process for a green card under VAWA, you will need to demonstrate that you meet all of the above eligibility criteria, using written documents or statements.

Types of Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visas: Who Qualifies?

Who qualifies for nonimmigrant visas and what types of visas are available?

A:

Nonimmigrant visas, such as tourist and student visas, permit you to enter the U.S. for a short time.

Types of Nonimmigrant Visas

You must choose the specific purpose of your trip (such as tourism or going to school) and apply for a specialized visa that authorizes that activity and no other. Each type of nonimmigrant visa is identified by a letter-number combination. You may already be familiar with the more popular ones: B-2 (visitor for tourism), E-2 (investor), F-1 (academic or language student), and H-1B (specialty worker). See the chart below for a complete list of the most commonly used codes and descriptions.

Summary List of Nonimmigrant Visas

A-1. Ambassadors, public ministers, or career diplomats, and their spouses and children.

A-2. Other accredited officials or employees of foreign governments, and their spouses and children.

A-3. Personal attendants, servants, and employees of A-1 and A-2 visa holders, and their spouses and children.

B-1. Business visitors.

B-2. Visitors for pleasure or medical treatment.

C-1. Foreign travelers in immediate and continuous transit through the U.S.

D-1. Crew members who need to land temporarily in the U.S. and who will depart aboard the same ship or plane on which they arrived.

D-2. Crew members who need to land temporarily in the U.S. and who will depart aboard a different ship or plane than the one on which they arrived.

E-1. Treaty traders working for a U.S. trading company that does 50% or more of its business with the trader's home country, and their spouses and children.

E-2. Treaty investors working for a U.S. company with 50% or more of its investment capital coming from the investor's home country, and their spouses and children.

E-3. Australian professionals coming to the United States to perform services in a specialty occupation (similar to an H-1B, but with a separate allotment of 10,500 visas). Spouses and children may accompany the E-3 visa holder.

F-1. Academic or language students.

F-2. Spouses and children of F-1 visa holders.

F-3. Citizens or residents of Mexico or Canada commuting to the U.S. to attend an academic school.

G-1. Designated principal representatives of foreign governments coming to the U.S. to work for an international organization, and their spouses and children.

G-2. Other accredited representatives of foreign governments coming to the U.S. to work for an international organization, and their spouses and children.

G-3. Representatives of foreign governments and their immediate family members who would ordinarily qualify for G-1 or G-2 visas except that their governments are not members of an international organization.

G-4. Officers or employees of international organizations and their spouses and children.

G-5. Attendants, servants, and personal employees of G-1 through G-4 visa holders, and their spouses and children.

H-1B. Persons working in specialty occupations requiring at least a bachelor's degree or its equivalent in on-the-job experience, and distinguished fashion models.

H-1C. Nurses who will work for up to three years in areas of the U.S. where health professionals are recognized as being in short supply.

H-2A. Temporary agricultural workers coming to the U.S. to fill positions for which a temporary shortage of U.S. workers has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

H-2B. Temporary workers of various kinds coming to the U.S. to perform temporary jobs for which there is a shortage of available, qualified U.S. workers.

H-3. Temporary trainees coming for on-the-job training unavailable in their home countries.

H-4. Spouses and children of H-1, H-2, or H-3 visa holders.

I-1. Bona fide representatives of the foreign press coming to the U.S. to work solely in that capacity, and their spouses and children.

J-1. Exchange visitors coming to the U.S. to study, work, or train as part of an exchange program officially recognized by the U.S. Department of State.

J-2. Spouses and children of J-1 visa holders.

K-1. Fiancés or fiancées of U.S. citizens coming to the U.S. for the purpose of getting married.

K-2. Minor, unmarried children of K-1 visa holders.

K-3. Spouses of U.S. citizen petitioners awaiting USCIS approval of their immigrant visa petition and the availability of an immigrant visa, who'd like to enter the U.S. and apply to adjust status, as a supposedly shorter way through the system. (This visa is almost never used, as it tends to actually save no time and cost more.)

K-4. Unmarried children of K-3 visa holders.

L-1. Intracompany transferees who work as managers, executives, or persons with specialized knowledge.

L-2. Spouses and children of L-1 visa holders.

M-1. Vocational or other nonacademic students, other than language students.

M-2. Spouses and children of M-1 visa holders.

M-3. Citizens or residents of Mexico or Canada commuting to the U.S. to attend vocational school.

N-8. Parents of certain special immigrants.

N-9. Children of certain special immigrants or N-9 visa holders.

NATO-1, NATO-2, NATO-3, NATO-4, and NATO-5. Representatives, officials, and experts coming to the U.S. under applicable provisions of the NATO Treaty, and their immediate family members.

NATO-6. Civilians accompanying military forces on missions authorized under the NATO Treaty, and their immediate family members.

NATO-7. Attendants, servants, or personal employees of NATO-1 through NATO-6 visas holders, and their immediate family members.

O-1. Persons of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.

O-2. Essential support staff of O-1 visa holders.

O-3. Spouses and children of O-1 and O-2 visa holders.

P-1. Internationally recognized athletes and entertainers, and their essential support staff.

P-2. Entertainers coming to perform in the U.S. through a government-recognized exchange program.

P-3. Artists and entertainers coming to the U.S. in a group to present culturally unique performances.

P-4. Spouses and children of P-1, P-2, and P-3 visa holders.

Q-1. Exchange visitors coming to the U.S. to participate in international cultural exchange programs.

Q-2. (Walsh visas) Participants in the Irish Peace Process Cultural and Training Program 

Q-3. Spouses and children of Q-1 visa holders.

R-1. Ministers and other workers of recognized religions.

R-2. Spouses and children of R-1 visa holders.

S-5. People coming to the U.S. to supply information to U.S. authorities about a criminal organization.

S-6. People coming to the U.S. to provide information to U.S. authorities about a terrorist organization.

T-1. Victims of trafficking in persons.

T-2, T-3. Spouses and children of victims of trafficking.

TN. Trade visas for Canadians and Mexicans.

U-1. People who have suffered "substantial physical or mental abuse" as a result of certain U.S. criminal violations including domestic violence and who are assisting law enforcement authorities.

U-2, U-3. Spouses and children of U-1 visa holders.

  1. Spouses and children of U.S. lawful permanent resident petitioners who have already waited three years for the approval of their visa petition or for an immigrant visa to become available, so long as their visa petition was submitted on or before December 21, 2000.

 

Limits on Activities in the U.S.

Your visa allows you to enter the United States and to engage in certain activities while you're there. For example, if you receive a student visa, you're allowed to study in the United States -- but not to work off campus (unless you seek special permission) and not to stay permanently.

 

How Long Your Visa Will Last

Just as nonimmigrant visas vary in purpose, they also vary as to how long they last. Each nonimmigrant visa is given an expiration date according to what the law allows. Most can also be extended a certain number of times.

An important caution: The expiration date on your visa does not indicate how long you can stay in the U.S. once you arrive. It indicates only the period of time during which you have the right to enter the United States using that visa. How long you can stay is shown by the date on your Form I-94 which may be a small white or green card given to you upon entry or if you entered after April 2013, you can access this record online on the Customs & Border Protection website.

 

If your visa is "multiple entry," however, you can use it to enter the United States again, as soon as you like. If it's not multiple entry, you can use it only once.

Becoming a U.S. Citizen

How do I become a U.S. Citizen?

A:

U.S. citizenship gives a person as many rights as the U.S. has to offer; for example, the right to vote, petition for family members to immigrate, and live abroad without losing the right to return. For these reasons, citizenship is not easily obtained.

To become a U.S. citizen through the process known as naturalization, you must first have a green card (permanent residence) and then meet other requirements, listed below. There are only a few rare exceptions in which a person goes straight from having no U.S. status to getting U.S. citizenship.

The Eligibility Criteria

If you are interested in applying for U.S. citizenship, first make sure that all of the following apply to you:

  1. You have lived in the United States as a lawful permanent resident for at least five years (with exceptions for refugees, people who get their green card through asylum, spouses of U.S. citizens, and U.S. military personnel);
  2. You have been physically present in the United States for at least half of the last five years;
  3. You have lived in the district or state where you are filing your application for at least three months;
  4. You have not spent more than a year outside the United States;
  5. You have not made your primary home in another country;
  6. You are at least 18 years old;
  7. You have good moral character;
  8. You are able to speak, read, and write in English;
  9. You are able to pass a test covering U.S. history and government (based on questions provided by USCIS), and
  10. You are willing to swear that you believe in the principles of the U.S. Constitution and will be loyal to the United States.

Applying for citizenship opens your whole immigration history to review. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will carefully investigate your background. If it discovers something wrong -- for example, that you used fraud to get your green card or abandoned your residency by making your home outside the United States -- it can strip you of your green card and send you out of the country.

The Application Process

You'll need to complete a citizenship application on USCIS Form N-400 and send it in with a copy of your green card, the required photos, and the appropriate fee. After filing your application, you will probably wait for many months, depending on your local USCIS office. Then you will be called in for a fingerprint appointment, and later an interview appointment.

At the interview, a USCIS officer will test your English language ability (unless you are over 50 and fit within an exception) and your knowledge of U.S. history and government. Applicants who are disabled can ask for accommodations at the interview, such as a sign language interpreter or wheelchair accessibility.

If all goes well at the interview, you'll receive an appointment for your swearing-in ceremony. At that time, you actually become a citizen, and receive a certificate of naturalization to prove it. As a citizen, you can petition to have close family members join you in the United States.

If you are a U.S. permanent or conditional resident -- that is, someone with a green card -- the basic rule is that you cannot apply for U.S. citizenship (or apply to naturalize) until you have lived in the United States as a lawful permanent resident for at least five years. That means exactly five years, to the day. For example, if you were approved for permanent residence on April 17, 2009, you would be eligible for citizenship on April 17, 2014. Check your so-called green card (permanent resident card) for the exact date on which you became a permanent resident.

If you start out as a conditional rather than a permanent resident (most likely because you got your residence either through recent marriage to a U.S. citizen or through an investor visa), your two years as a conditional resident count as permanent residence, on one condition: You must successfully become a permanent resident at the end of the two years.

Any one of several exceptions may, however, reduce the amount of time you must wait.

Keep reading for a rundown on these exceptions -- or at least the ones that apply to civilians. If you are a member of, or relative of someone who has been with the U.S. Armed Forces.If you served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces for at least one year in total (even if the year was broken up into different time periods) you can apply for citizenship just as soon as you get your green card. It doesn't matter whether the United States was at war during your service, which is why you'll sometimes hear this exception called "peacetime naturalization."

You'll need to be age 18 or older to apply, and you'll need to meet the other standard criteria for naturalization. However, you won't have to pay the usual N-400 application fee. But you will have to complete and file an additional form -- USCIS Form N-426, Request for Certification of Military or Naval Service. This form will require input and a signature from a U.S. military official.

If you have already been discharged from the military, the discharge must have been honorable, and you'll need to hurry to use this exception: If more than six months pass after your discharge and before you file your application for naturalization, you'll be back to following the five-year rule that applies to civilian applicants.

 

90-Days Early Application Rule

Despite the five years of permanent residence requirement, you are actually allowed to submit your naturalization application to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within the 90-days before your five-year anniversary has arrived. The reason has to do with timing.

Your application must be submitted by mail, using a form provided by USCIS called an "N-400." USCIS will take a long time to process the N-400, to arrange for you to be fingerprinted, and to call you in for the interview at which it actually reviews your application, tests you on your knowledge of English and U.S. government, and makes a decision on whether to approve or deny you.

In fact, USCIS will in all likelihood take at least 90 days to call you in for your interview, which is why it has officially said that you are safe applying within that time period.

 

Exception to Five-Year Rule for People Married to a U.S. Citizen

You need to wait a mere three years to apply for U.S. citizenship if, during that time, you have been a permanent (or conditional) resident married to, as well as living with, a U.S. citizen. (See the Immigration and Nationality Act at I.N.A. Section 319(a) or 8 U.S.C. section 1430(a).) You will need to provide proof that you qualify along with your application.

This exception applies even if you did not get your green card through this marriage. So, for example, you could have gotten a green card through your employer, then married a U.S. citizen soon after, and you still need wait only three years from the date of your marriage to apply for citizenship.

You will, however, need to stay married to your U.S. citizen spouse all the way through to your citizenship interview. The exception won't work if you separate or divorce legally prior to your interview, or even if you choose to stop living with your spouse. Unfortunately, you will also lose the exception if your spouse dies before your naturalization interview.

 

Exception to Five-Year Rule for Battered Spouses of a U.S. Citizen Granted VAWA Protection

Congress didn't want immigrants to have to stay in an abusive marriage for three years just to obtain the benefit of the three-year exception when they applied for U.S. citizenship. So it created an exception for people who got their green cards through marriage to a U.S. citizen, but based on a self-petition on Form I-360 due to the fact that the U.S. citizen is physically or emotionally abusive. These immigrants can apply for U.S. citizenship using the three-year exception.

Children can also use this exception, although they must still reach age 18 before submitting their application for citizenship.

 

Partial Exception to Five-Year Rule for Refugees

If you got your green card based on having come to the United States as a refugee, part of your time as a refugee can be counted as if you were a permanent resident (known as "rollback").

If you were granted refugee status while you were in another country, use the date you entered the United States as the beginning of your permanent residence. No matter how many years you lived in the United States as a refugee before eventually becoming a permanent resident, those years will count as if you had been a permanent resident the whole time. (See the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, at 8 C.F.R. Section 209.1(e).)

 

Partial Exception to Five-Year Rule for People Granted Asylum (Asylees)

If you got your green card based on having received asylum in the United States, one year of your time as an asylee counts as if you were a permanent resident (known as "rollback").

Note, however, that if you waited longer than one year after receiving asylum to apply for your green card, that extra time will not be counted toward your permanent residency period. You will have to wait a full four years from the actual date when you're approved for a green card.

And, somewhat confusingly, you will need to wait a full five years from the date your green card says you became a permanent resident. That's because USCIS will automatically backdate your permanent residence approval date on your green card by one year, in recognition of your rollback rights. (See the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations 8 C.F.R. section 209.2(f).)

 

Exception to Five-Year Rules for Spouses of U.S. Citizens in Certain Overseas Jobs

If your spouse has a job requiring the two of you to live overseas, you may be able to apply for citizenship without five years of permanent residence. If you are willing to come back to the United States to apply, you can file your application any time after you receive your permanent residence.

There are a number of limitations on who can use this provision. You must be regularly stationed abroad due to your spouse's employment. You also must declare an intention to live in the United States when your spouse's employment ends. And finally, your spouse's employer must be either:

 

  • the U.S. government (such as the CIA, the military, the Peace Corps, or the American Red Cross)
  • a U.S. research institution that has been recognized by the U.S. attorney general (these are listed at 8 C.F.R. section 316.20(a))
  • a U.S. firm or corporation (or a subsidiary) that is engaged wholly or partly in developing U.S. foreign trade and commerce
  • a public international organization in which the United States participates by treaty or statute (these are listed at 8 C.F.R. section 316.20(b) and (c)), or
  • a religious denomination that has an organization within the United States; your spouse must perform ministerial or priestly functions there or work solely as a missionary.

 

Other Requirements for Citizenship May Require You to Wait Even Longer

A final note of caution: Even if you have spent the required amount of time with a green card, you may need to wait longer before applying for U.S. citizenship if you either:

  • have not spent the required amount of time physically present in the United States (for most people, at least half of your required years as a permanent resident)
  • have not lived in the district or state where you are filing your application for at least three months, or
  • have spent more than a year outside the United States, or
  • cannot yet demonstrate that you've had good moral character for the required amount of time before applying for citizenship.
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