Some United States citizens and lawful permanent residents are eligible to bring their families to the U.S.– but how do you get this process started, who qualifies, and how does it work? This guide to family immigration explains.

Family Immigration: The Basics

Some U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents with green cards may sponsor certain relatives to come to the United States to live and work. These people are eligible to immigrate based on their familial relationships. However, there are different immigrant categories depending on whether the sponsor is a citizen or green card holder. Prospective immigrants cannot petition the United States government on their own. They must have a sponsor who petitions the government on their behalf. If the government agrees that the prospective immigrant is admissible to the United States, and if there are spots available (there are caps on the number of immigrants allowed in some categories), the person will receive a visa and, in some cases, lawful permanent residency (a green card) in the United States.

Family Immigration for Relatives of U.S. Citizens

United States citizens may petition for visas or green cards for the following relatives:
  • A spouse
  • Unmarried children who are under the age of 21
  • Sons and daughters who are married or who are over the age of 21
  • Parents, provided that the sponsor is over the age of 21
  • Siblings, provided that the sponsor is over the age of 21
  • A fiancé residing outside the United States, as well as that fiancé’s children

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Visas are always available for the immediate relatives of United States citizens. Because these visas are always available, and because there is no cap on the number of these visas that can be issued each year, immediate relatives don’t need to wait for their number to come up. See the later section, “Family-Based Immigrant Visa Categories,” for more information.

Family members who are not immediate, such as unmarried adult sons and daughters, married sons and daughters, and siblings do have to wait for a spot to open up for them. These people are put into preference categories, and there are different waiting times for each preference category. You can see current wait times and processing time information from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) here.

Family Immigration for Relatives of Lawful Permanent Residents (Green Card Holders)

Lawful permanent residents of the United States who have green cards may petition the government for spouses, unmarried children under the age of 21, and unmarried sons or daughters of any age.

Visas for these family members become available according to their preference category, and the clock starts ticking according to the priority date on the application (that’s the date that the form was properly filed with USCIS). Relatives who are currently in the United States lawfully may apply to adjust their status. Relatives who are currently outside the United States must undergo consular processing. See the later section, “What is Consular Processing in Family Immigration,” for more information.

Family Immigration for Relatives of Asylees or Refugees

People who enter the United States as a refugee or asylee within the past two years may petition the United States government for spouses and unmarried children who were under the age of 21 when the refugee or asylee first applied for refugee or asylee status.

The caveat to that is that the family relationship that serves as the basis for your relative’s application must have existed before you came to the United States. However, every situation is different, and you should speak to an attorney about your specific circumstances if you’re a refugee or asylee who would like to sponsor a family member to come to the United States.

A Word on Admissibility

In order for any petitions for any family members to be successful, the subject of the petition (that is, the person who would like to live and work in the United States) must be admissible to the country. That means the United States government must determine that the person is not a risk to national security or wouldn’t otherwise potentially cause harm to the United States or its residents.

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Green Cards with Hendricks Law Firm (1)Family-Based Immigrant Visa Categories

There are two groups of family-based immigrant visa categories: immediate relatives and family preference categories. 

An experienced Albuquerque family immigration attorney can advise you on which category to apply for. Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas are unlimited in quantity and are based on a close family relationship with a United States citizen identified as an Immediate Relative. Immediate relative visa types include:

  • IR-1: Spouse of a U.S. Citizen
  • IR-2: Unmarried child of a U.S. Citizen Under 21 Years of Age
  • IR-3: Orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. Citizen
  • IR-4: Orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. citizen
  • IR-5: Parent of a U.S. Citizen who is at least 21 years old

Family preference immigrant visas are limited in quantity each year. These visa types are for more distant relatives of a U.S. citizen and some relatives of a lawful permanent resident. The family preference categories are:

  • F1: Family first preference. Includes unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their minor children, if they have any.
  • F2: Family second preference. Includes spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters, age 21 and older, of lawful permanent residents. A minimum of seventy-seven percent of all visas available for this category will go to the spouses and children and the remainder is allocated to unmarried sons and daughters.
  • F3: Family third preference. Includes married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, their spouses, and their minor children.
  • F4: Family fourth preference. Includes brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, their spouses, and their minor children, if the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age.

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins cannot sponsor a relative for immigration in the United States. It is incredibly important to work with a reputable family immigration attorney in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


When the number of qualified applicants for a category exceeds the available immigrant visas, there will be a wait. In this common scenario, the available immigrant visas will be issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed, using their priority date. The filing date of a petition will become that applicant’s priority date. Immigrant visas can’t be issued until the priority date is reached. In certain categories, there may be a waiting period of several years before the priority date is reached. Check the Visa Bulletin or consult with your family immigration attorney in Albuquerque, NM for the latest priority dates.

Returning Resident Immigrant Visas

A lawful permanent resident who has remained outside the U.S. for longer than twelve months will require a new immigrant visa to re-enter the United States and resume their permanent residence. There is a provision under U.S. visa law for issuing a returning resident special immigrant visa to an LPR who remained outside the United States due to circumstances beyond their control. For more information about international travel and returning resident immigrant visas, visit your Albuquerque, NM family immigration attorney.

When you have questions, we’re here for you. Our goal is to keep your family together and to make the process as smooth as possible. We keep you informed about constantly changing laws, and we make sure you receive all legal benefits for which you are eligible.

Common Questions About Family Immigration

Check out the following commonly asked questions about family immigration. If you don’t see an answer to your question listed here, please feel free to call our office to schedule a free consultation with an experienced, knowledgeable professional who can give you the guidance you need.

What if a Family Member of a U.S. Citizen is Already in the United States?

If you, the sponsor, are a United States citizen and your relative is already in the country, they may apply to adjust their status to become a green card holder when a visa number becomes available to them.

What if a Family Member of a U.S. Citizen is Outside the United States?

If a relative is outside the United States, your petition on their behalf will go to the National Visa Center, or NVC. The NVC will check out the petition and then forward it to the appropriate U.S. consulate when a visa becomes available. Then, your relative will be notified how to proceed. This whole process is called consular processing.

How Long Will My Family Member Have to Wait for an Immigrant Visa to Become Available?

Some people – such as the immediate family members of U.S. citizens, as well as the spouses and children of lawful permanent residents – don’t have to wait for a visa to become available; these visas are in unlimited supply and are always available.

Others, such as parents, siblings, married children and sons and daughters who are over the age of 21, do have to wait for a visa to become available to them. The waiting period depends on your family member’s preference category. Each category has a different waiting period based on the number of people who are in line in front of your family member. See the earlier section, “Family-Based Immigrant Visa Categories,” for more information on preference categories.

Can My Family Member Apply for a Green Card Immediately?

If your family member is in the United States, they may apply for a green card by adjusting their status. If your family member is out of the United States, they may need to apply for a visa to come to the U.S. as well as a green card. Your Albuquerque immigration attorney can give you the guidance you need to help your relative immigrate to the United States.

What About Family Immigration for Military Members’ Spouses and Children?

The families of U.S. service members may be eligible for expedited naturalization or adjustment of status from locations outside the United States. For example, if a servicemember is stationed in South Korea and marries a South Korean national, the South Korean spouse may be eligible to become a U.S. citizen while still overseas. Additionally, children born and adopted overseas may also qualify for expedited immigration services from overseas. Your attorney can give you more guidance if you’re an active-duty military service member overseas.

What is Consular Processing in Family Immigration?

Consular processing is the process that occurs when a family member is outside the United States at the time the petition is filed. The sponsor’s paperwork goes to the National Visa Center, or NVC, which reviews and holds it until a visa becomes available for the family member. Then, when a visa becomes available, the NVC forwards the paperwork to the appropriate U.S. consulate for action.

Do You Need to Talk to an Albuquerque Immigration Attorney About Family Immigration?

If you’d like to help a family member immigrate to the United States, we may be able to help. Call our office today to schedule a consultation with a caring, committed and experienced attorney who can answer your questions and get you started on the right path.

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U.S. immigration law can be incredibly complex – and for most people, the best course of action is to work with an immigration attorney who understands the process and federal immigration laws. 

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